Tag Archives: human psychology

Boredom Vs. A Lack Of Belonging: Which Drives Outrage Culture More?

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Here’s a quick non-rhetorical question. Which is worse, crippling boredom or social isolation? There’s no right answer, but every answer has distressing implications. More than anything else, those answers reinforce why solitary confinement is rightly considered torture.

I ask that question because I had an interesting conversation with someone on Reddit about what drives certain people to be constantly outraged about whatever happens to be controversial that day. I’ve talked a bit about outrage culture before and how professional trolls exploit them, but I haven’t really dug into the mechanisms behind it. Given how new controversies seem to trend every day, I think it’s worth scrutinizing.

In the discussion, I singled out boredom as a possibly underrated factor. Having highlighted the power of crippling boredom, I felt qualified to make the case that boredom may very well be an understated, under-appreciated cause. I still feel there’s a case to be made.

In the grand scheme of things, humanity is in uncharted territory when it comes to boredom. For most of human history, we had to live our lives under the constant threat of plague, famine, war, and natural disasters. Whether we were hunter/gatherers or subsistence farmers, life was chaotic and unpredictable.

Say what you will about those harsh, pre-modern eras, but they weren’t boring. They couldn’t be. There was always work to do. Given the lack of effective birth control, there were children to raise. Even if social media had existed 100 years ago, who would have the time or energy to even be outraged about a man wearing a sexist shirt.

Fast forward to the 21st century and things like war, famine, disease, and crippling poverty are all in decline. This is objectively good on so many ways, but for some people, especially in well-to-do middle class people, it leaves a large void that quickly becomes boring if not filled with something. Sometimes, it can get so bad that it can lead to outright murder.

When I made this argument, I think more than a few people took it seriously on Reddit. It was easy to see how someone whose life is so affluent and devoid of heart-pounding conflict that they will latch onto petty outrages just so they can feel something. Like someone stuck in solitary confinement, they’ll do anything for some sort of stimulation beyond counting the tiles on the floor.

Given how our brains can’t always discern the source of arousal, sometimes it’ll settle for whatever adrenaline rush we get from righteous outraged. Some go so far as to call the rush we get from outrage an addiction and it’s not a wholly inaccurate idea.

However, one person in that discussion pointed another element that also relies on that part of the brain that can’t always discern what gets it aroused. Instead of combating boredom, though, this issue deals with our inherent need to join a group and become part of a larger movement.

It’s very much an extension of tribalism and, like seeking stimulation when there is none, human beings are well-equipped by evolutionary biology to form groups. Whether we’re a small band of hunter/gatherers or a group of Taylor Swift fans, it doesn’t take much for us to form those groups and our brains reward us greatly.

Being part of a group feels good. Being part of something gives us a rush. It’s a major reason why peer pressure works and why tribalism often overrules reason. That solidarity we feel when we’re part of a group isn’t just intoxicating. It’s a fundamental component of any highly social species, which includes humans.

What this means for those constantly outrage isn’t that far off from the implications relating to boredom. Like boredom, our current society is pretty unprecedented in terms of how easy it is to form a close-nit group and share in that solidarity that has been driving our species since the hunter/gatherer days.

Thanks to social media and mass communication, it’s possible for people to do more than just share their opinions, no matter how outrageous they might be. It’s also possible to connect with those who either share in those opinions or despise them. In terms of forming a tribe, it’s a two-for-one-deal because it creates both a sense of “us” while revealing a “them” to rally against.

For anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media, it doesn’t take much to see the whole us versus them mentality to take shape. If any amount of disagreement goes on long enough, Godwin’s Law usually takes over and the battle lines are set.

On top of this, the social issues in 2018 aren’t quite nearly as clear-cut as they were in decades past. In the past, there were some pretty egregious injustices surrounding civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights that required major social movements to combat. By and large, society has done a lot to improve the state for these marginalized groups.

There’s no question that being part of such righteous movements is laudable. We, as a society, rightly praise civil rights leaders who stand for such righteous causes. Naturally, some people seek to emulate that. Whether by ego or altruism, it’s only natural that they want to experience that kind of accomplishment.

Thanks to the sheer breadth of human progress, though, there causes on the levels faced by Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. However, because that drive to be part of a movement is just that strong, those same people will settle for pettier movements that protest sexy women in video games or bemoan the lack of diversity in old TV shows like “Friends.”

Make no mistake. Those outrages are petty and asinine when compared to the real injustices that past social movements have fought, but the brains of the outraged can’t tell the difference. From their perspective, their movement is every bit as righteous as every other civil rights movement in history. The outrage they express and the solidarity they feel is every bit as fulfilling as something that alleviates boredom.

Even if these causes are petty and the outrage is shallow, it’s important to note the alternative here. If these same people who protest the lack of diversity in the tech industry didn’t have this sort of thing to drive them, then what would happen to the group they’d formed?

Absent that outrage and protest, the group has nothing to rally behind. The person has nothing provoking arousal, be it anger or excitement. Without this dynamic, they don’t belong to something bigger anymore. They’re not the ones marching alongside famous civil rights leaders of the past. They’re just alone, by themselves, contributing nothing of value.

For many people, that’s just untenable. I would go so far as to say it’s almost as untenable as crippling boredom. Even self-proclaimed introverts and ardent individualists, we seek an identity and a constant source of stimulation. When we lack one or both, we lack a core element of any social species. In the same way we’re driven to meet the rest of our basic needs, we’ll be driven to find that somewhere, no matter how misguided.

In the past, we might have found that sense of belonging and purpose through our small communities or organized religion. Today, the world is much bigger and more diverse, thanks to technology and civilization. Organized religion is also not effective anymore due to factors too numerous to list. People are still going to seek belonging.

It’s somewhat ironic that civilization has advanced to such a degree that there aren’t as many clear-cut, good versus evil movements to be part of anymore. However, there’s still this longing to be the hero of our own story and be part of something greater, even if it means actually going out of their way to feel outraged.

Getting back to the initial question I posed, I think the influence of boredom and belonging are inherently linked. We agonize over escaping boredom and over having a sense of belonging. We can’t get that same rush our ancestors felt when surviving bear attacks and hunger so we’ll settle for whining about protests during football games. It’s still annoyingly petty, but distressingly understandable.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, Reasons and Excuses, War on Boredom

Do Soul Mates Actually Mates Exist?

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When it comes to love, romance, and whatever else manifests in every song a boy band ever sang, the ultimate manifestation of this beautifully sentimental phenomenon is the soul mate. We’ve probably all heard about it in some form. Some are even lucky enough to be with someone that they consider to be their soul mate. Regardless of whether or not you care for the concept, we envy those people.

As a long-time romance fan and an aspiring erotica/romance writer, the ideal of the soul mate is the alpha and omega of the concept. It is to romance what Superman is to modern superheroes. It is the ideal to which we aspire. It embodies the ultimate example of what true love is and what we want it to be.

I’m not going to lie. That sort of thing makes parts of me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, among other things. Most people who enjoy romance to some degree probably feel the same way. The idea that two people have a love so strong that it’s practically interwoven into the fabric of time, space, and the basic laws of reality just feels so special.

It makes for both a great fantasy, full of more romance and passion than most can ever manage without seeing “Titanic” fifteen times in a row. It’s the kind of love that makes romances like Jack and Rose, Romeo and Juliet, and even Superman and Lois Lane seem ordained by destiny.

Now, here’s where I kind of have to put a dent in the time-honored fantasy. I know that’s kind of dangerous for a self-proclaimed romance fan, but I’m going to do it anyway because I think it’s a discussion worth having. It’s a discussion based on a simple question.

Do soul mates actually exist?

I know that me asking that after I just said it makes parts of me gush sounds like an about-face. I promise there’s a context to it and one that ties directly into how we go about answering this question. Whether or not you’re a romance fan, the ideal of the soul mate and our inherent drive to seek love makes it an important question to ask.

Before I give my answer, I need to add a few caveats to my fondness for the concept. Yes, it does resonate with me, somewhat, as an overall romance fan. However, as a fan of compelling stories and an aspiring writer, I actually don’t really care for stories built around the idea of soul mates.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s a sweet concept. When I was younger and just starting to explore romance, I really liked those stories. As I got older, though, and my tastes in stories evolved, that appeal quickly waned. Whenever I read a book or saw a movie that ran with the concept of soul mates, it became somewhat of a turn-off.

That’s because from a narrative perspective, soul mates make for bland and shallow stories. If a couple are established as soul mates, then that basically renders any need to work or nurture their love moot. They don’t have to put in the time, work, or effort to become a great couple. Destiny and whatever supernatural forces behind their bond do that for them.

This is why I don’t care much for “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s established from the beginning that they’re “star-crossed lovers,” which is basically a more Shakespearean way of fate had ordained for these two to fall in love and there’s nothing anyone or anything can do to prevent it. Sure, it’s sweet and dramatic, but it’s a very limited story.

Those same limits that undermine a story are a major factor in answering the question. For someone like me, who follows romantic plots and sub-plots way closer than most straight men will ever admit, it shapes my perspective on what makes a great love story and what makes a real or fictional relationship strong.

Within that context, I’ll give my answer to the question. I don’t claim that this answer is definitive. This is just my opinion, having formed it from years and years of both consuming and crafting all things romance.

No. I don’t believe that soul mates are real.

I’m sure that’s tantamount to blasphemy for other romance fans out there. I understand that sentiment and I gladly accept the scorn that comes with that answer. However, I am willing to justify my answer.

It’s not just because I regularly write about the inherent flaws in the human brain, which make the prospect of achieving any ideal, be it perfect love or perfect justice, impossible by default. I think the concept, as a whole, does not fit with the whole process of love, at least as I see it.

Whether it’s love in the real world or love in sexy novels, falling in love and being in love is an ongoing phenomenon. It takes many forms and plays out in many ways, sometimes chaotically and sometimes dramatically. That’s part of what makes it such an appealing narrative.

Some of the best manifestations of that process, which I’ve gone out of my way to highlight, occur when two people work together to build and strengthen their love. They work together. They fight together. Sometimes they even clash, along the way. There’s never an endgame in mind. Their love is something that builds and evolves day-by-day.

In the real world, we see that play out in the work people put into their relationships. Whether it’s scheduling a sex night or going on some romantic getaway to Fiji, people in love put work into that love. It’s not something that just happens. For that feeling to remain strong, it takes time, effort, and understanding.

With soul mates, there’s no process to love. It just happens. The universe basically commands it. There’s no reason to put any work into it because those involved are so made for each other that they couldn’t drive each other apart if they tried. That kind of love doesn’t just rely on supernatural forces. It relies on two people’s thoughts, feelings, and desires being perfectly compatible every second of every day until the end of time.

Given the chaotic nature of the human mind, that’s just not realistic. It’s not even that romantic, when you think about it. I don’t deny that there are particular moments, such as a wedding day or the first time a couple makes love, where they’ll feel in that moment that they are soul mates. I don’t deny that feeling exists. As for the larger concept, as a whole, I think that’s about as real as Superman holding a black hole in his hand.

So I guess my answer does have a bit of a caveat. I do believe there are moments when two people are so in sync, emotionally and romantically, that they fit the mold of soul mates. Those same people can go onto break up, get divorced, or cheat on each other. That’s just the chaotic, unceasing nature of human passions.

Again, my answer to this question is anything but definitive. Perhaps there are other romance fans out there who believe I’m dead wrong and that soul mates do exist. If you feel that way, I’d be happy to discuss that issue in greater detail. For now, I simply ask that all those reading this contemplate that question and answer it for themselves.

Even if you’re not big on romance, it’s a question worth answering. It reflects both our sentiments and our aspirations when it comes to seeking love. As someone who is currently single, writes sexy stories, hopes to fall in love one day, I imagine I’ll continue contemplating this question for years to come.

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Filed under Love Or Obsession, Marriage and Relationships, sex in society, sexuality

The Devastation Of Alienation On Our Sexuality (Among Other Things)

When I was growing up, the concept of alienation only applied to grunge rock, heavy metal, and whatever other media disaffected youth used to voice their dissatisfaction with the world around them. Being such a miserable teenager myself, I thought I understood that sentiment to some extent. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there’s a lot more to it.

Alienation has been in the news a lot lately, but it’s not one of those annoying contemporary buzzwords like “toxic masculinity.” It’s actually a term with a dictionary definition, which also has some philosophical backbone that goes back centuries. Like most philosophical terms, though, it has undergone some revisions over the years.

Rather than get into the long, tedious path the idea of alienation has taken, I want to apply it to our current situation. In addition, I’m going to analyze alienation the same way I often do with superhero comics in that I’m going to apply it to sexuality. I doubt that’ll surprise long-time readers of this blog, but I also doubt it’ll surprise anyone who has observed recent societal trends in how we approach sex in society.

Without question, there is a sense of alienation going on in our collective sex lives. While it doesn’t affect everybody, especially the billionaire rock star/celebrity crowd, it does affect some people more than others. I imagine I’ll upset or offend some people by identifying parts of that crowd, but I need to take that chance to make my point.

The basics of alienation are simple. According to Dictionary.com, the definition is as follows:

  • The act of alienatingor of causing someone to become indifferent or hostile.
  • The state of being alienatedwithdrawn, or isolated from the world, through indifference or disaffection.
  • The act of turning away, transferring, or diverting.

Within the scope of this definition, you probably know someone who has experienced this type of feeling. At the very least, you knew someone growing up who just felt left out of everything and went out of their way to detach themselves from the rest of society.

Their reasons for doing this vary. Some have serious mental health issues. Others are driven to alienation by economic factors like poverty. Some even go so far as to say that our modern form of capitalism is an inherently alienating force. The entire premise of “Fight Club” actually revolves around that idea, as so wonderfully articulated by the folks at Wisecrack.

With respect to sexuality, though, alienation is a bit trickier. So much attention has been placed on how powerful men solicit sex from beautiful women or how women struggle to maintain some semblance of sexual freedom that it’s hard to see the forest from the trees. Being both a man and an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’m going to make an effort.

I don’t doubt for a second that alienation affects the sexuality of all genders. Sex, especially if you’re not having the kind that fulfills your needs and desires, can be pretty alienating. We humans are wired to want, seek, and enjoy sex. Given the crude and clunky nature of biology, in general, it’s bound to get distressing and disorienting.

For centuries, women were more prone to sexual alienation than men. That’s because, until relatively recently, their sexual choices were made for them. They didn’t get to choose their spouse. They didn’t get to live their own lives or explore their sexuality with a variety of partners. In fact, doing so might actually be detrimental to their safety.

When you have no choices and much of your life is controlled by others, it’s easy to feel alienated. You have no agency, control, or freedom to even know what you want sexually. That led to a lot of unsatisfied, desperate women.

Conversely, men weren’t just allowed to fool around on their spouses. In fact, it was kind of expected. In that respect, not having a mistress might actually be alienating. Men who loved their wives too much were even criticized.

Then, in the late 20th century and into the 21st century, the pendulum swung in the other direction. The women’s rights movements and the rise of modern feminism gave women more control of their sexuality. For the most part, modern women can explore their sexuality and enjoy a level of sexual freedom once reserved for aristocratic men with a legion of mistresses.

By and large, this has been a good thing. In fact, greater gender equality with respect to sexuality might actually be more conducive to our caveman brains. The sexual practices of Bonobo apes are a testament to that. However, in some respects, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that the alienating forces are hitting another group.

I’ve mentioned it before and it seems to be an ongoing trend. With the rise of third-wave feminism and political correctness, all the evil and ills of the world are attributed to horny men seeking sex from beautiful women. It’s very much a double standard that seems to be intensifying with each passing year.

Whereas a man trying to seek sex with multiple women are more likely to be seen as a misogynist pig, women seeking sex are seen as empowered. Sure, there’s still slut-shaming, but a good chunk of that actually comes from other women. It’s almost paradoxical in the sense that a woman will be criticized, no matter how much or how little she decides to exercise her sexual freedom.

That too can be alienating, but those same women can take comfort in the knowledge that they’re the sexual gatekeepers. They’re the ones who give the consent. They’re the ones who decide whether a man is getting sex. If the man has a problem with that choice, then he can be subject to serious consequences, even if he misinterprets the message.

The recent surge of sex scandals and the growing emphasis on consent has put a lot more pressure on men, especially those who aren’t rich, well-connected, or attractive. In terms of raw numbers, that represents the vast majority of men, myself included. Some call it the 80/20 rule of dating, but I prefer to think of it as a greater alienation complex.

By that, I mean the existing standards and methods for men seeking love, sex, and intimacy make most men prone to a sense of alienation. I won’t say it’s as bad as it was for Victorian Era women, but alienation is difficult for anyone, regardless of time, circumstance, or gender.

The situation for men is akin to playing a game in which you know other players cheat and/or have inherent advantages, but there’s nothing you can do about it. On top of that, the standards are so high and the margin for error is so low that, from a distance, it seems impossible. It creates this distressing sentiment that you will never find the love or intimacy you seek.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve looked in the mirror on some mornings and felt that way, especially in my awkward, acne-laden teen years. I like to think I’ve gotten better over the years because I’ve worked on myself, gotten into shape, and made myself more attractive to the opposite sex. However, I understand that there are plenty of men who struggle to do that or don’t have the same opportunities.

For them, the alienation is almost unavoidable. They see the marketplace for love and sex, but don’t see any opportunities. Sure, they can still play the game, but it would be like a toddler trying to win a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

Within the current system, the structures in place ensure that there will always be a sizable chunk of men who are left out of the sexual landscape. They’re not the only ones either. Women who are either unattractive or not inclined to play by the evolving rules of that landscape will be just as isolated. So long as those standards are so rigid, there will be a lot of sexually unsatisfied people in this world.

From a pragmatic standpoint, our current approach to sexuality fails the Stanhope Principle. Society cannot function or progress with such a system. Any system that has such large groups of people feeling alienated and left out is inherently unstable. Karl Marx, however you feel about him and his ideas, made that obvious years ago.

For now, we can only do so much to adapt the current system. The sexual alienation that people feel will continue to evolve, for better and for worse, in accord with major trends. If history is any guide, though, the sexual landscape will continue to change. Whether or not that’ll mitigate or intensify the alienation remains to be seen.

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Filed under gender issues, sex in society, sexuality

Al Bundy Syndrome: The Face Of Learned Helplessness

Some concepts are so vague that it’s hard to put a human face on it. I suspect that’s part of why many people suck at math. You can’t personalize it, humanize it, or imagine it on a pair of breasts. Even things that directly affect people, like learned helplessness, are hard to grasp.

That’s why if you find a way to put a human face on a serious issue, you jump at the chance. It doesn’t just make it easier. It makes them memorable in an unexpected way. I consider the concept of learned helplessness a serious issue that affects our personal lives, our professional lives, and our sex lives. It goes beyond the world of an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It’s way bigger than we’re comfortable admitting.

That’s why, in the interest of putting a human face on a serious issue, I’d like to present the greatest personification of learned helplessness in the history of media. Some of us grew up with him. Some of us were appalled by him. He’s a myth, a legend, and an icon in his own tragic right.

His name is Al Bundy, the hapless husband and father of the Bundy family from the Fox classic, “Married With Children.” To those who have watched every episode and love the show as much as I do, you already understand why Al is the perfect embodiment of learned helplessness.

For those who aren’t familiar with “Married With Children” or why it was such a groundbreaking show, I feel sorry for you. For most people under the age of 20, they have no idea how much this show shook our collective understanding of modern television.

Say what you will about the trash currently on TV now, but before “Married With Children,” it was much worse. By worse, I mean they were boring. Most sitcoms were bland, generic, feel-good stories that tried to paint the world in an overly-rosy picture. Every one of them basically tried to capture the spirit of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver.”

Married With Children” saw that and decided to do the exact opposite, so much so that when it was in development, the title of the show was called “Not The Cosbys.” It was a show where all the conflicts weren’t solved at the end. It was a show where the world wasn’t idealized, perfect, or fair. In other words, it was more in line with the real world.

In that world, Al Bundy gets dealt a worse hand than most. At one point, he was a high school football star with a promising future. Then, he got hit with a streak of bad luck that effectively crushed his spirits.

He got injured and lost his football scholarship. He got involved with Peggy Bundy, a woman I’ve cited before as a character that men should rightly dread. He eventually has two kids that don’t respect him and works a dead-end, low-paying job as a shoe salesman.

While other sitcoms glorify the innate dignity of working class men like Ralph Cramden, Archie Bunker, and even Homer Simpson, there’s nothing glorious about Al Bundy’s life. There’s nothing noble about his poverty. He doesn’t even try to come off as sympathetic. His life doesn’t raise the bar or embody an ideal. If anything, it reminds ordinary people just how bad things can get.

Whereas other TV sitcoms try to uplift an audience by showing how loving, functional families solve their problems in a simple, 30-minute show, “Married With Children” sent a different message. It presented the audience with a level of dysfunction so extreme, so exaggerated that even if you’re home life was a mess, you could take comfort in the fact that you were not the Bundy family.

What makes that message so powerful is also what makes Al Bundy such a perfect example of learned helplessness. Fittingly enough, the actor who played him, Ed O’Neill, actually drew inspiration from someone in his own family.

In a sense, Al Bundy was built around the idea that he was just resigned to his fate. He realized how much his life sucked, that his family didn’t respect him, and that his best days were behind him. Dealing with all that in addition to working a dead-end job effectively destroyed his spirit, so much so that he stopped trying to better his situation.

That perfectly reflects some of the early experiments done about learned helplessness, namely those involving a poor dog that just stopped trying to avoid painful shocks. Al Bundy is basically that dog after it has been shocked so many times that it just doesn’t bother anymore. It accepts that it will suffer and doesn’t try to avoid it.

In a sense, it becomes a mentality akin to a psychological illness. In the spirit of caveman logic and excuse banking, I’ll give it a name. From here on out, let’s call it “Al Bundy Syndrome.” That’s a much more memorable name than the overly-technical term, learned helplessness. With Al Bundy Syndrome, the condition has a name and a face that Ed O’Neill made iconic.

Given that we already have weird diseases like restless leg syndrome and walking corpse syndrome, which I swear is a thing, I don’t see why we can’t create a syndrome out a fictional character. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the first time.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I claim to be an expert in anything that doesn’t involve telling sexy stories, but it’s for that reason that I feel it’s so important to put an actual face on an issue that’s hard to understand. Psychology is tricky, complicated, and messy. Al Bundy is simple, crude, and crass. One is innately funnier than the other.

In that sense, it’s easier to see the signs and symptoms of learned helplessness, so long as you frame it in Al Bundy syndrome. Watch any old episode of “Married With Children” and the symptoms reveal themselves. They include feelings like:

  • Being hopelessly numb to the misery around you, like Al Bundy
  • Making little to no effort to improve your situation, like Al Bundy
  • Assuming the worst in every situation, like Al Bundy
  • Having an extremely cynical outlook, like Al Bundy
  • Not caring about whether the world likes or respects you, like Al Bundy
  • Having no shame or filter about what you say, like Al Bundy

The list goes on, but there are too many to list and watching old episodes of “Married With Children” is probably far more informative than any list, not to mention funnier. It’s a show that probably couldn’t get made today, due to how politically incorrect it was, even for its time. That makes its impact all the more vital.

I doubt that Ed O’Neill or the producers of “Married With Children” intended Al Bundy to be the poster boy for learned helplessness, but sometimes the connections are there and all we have to do is make them. So, moving forward, if you want to know what learned helplessness is and how to avoid it, just remember this face. It may save your life, your marriage, and your soul.

For that, I thank you Ed O’Neill.

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Filed under gender issues, Marriage and Relationships

How Learned Helplessness Dooms Your Sex Life (Among Other Things)

When I was growing up, I considered myself lucky to be surrounded by so many loving people. I like to think my fondness of romance, as well as my desire to become an erotica/romance writer, is a direct result of seeing so much love among friends, family, and all those close to me.

It wasn’t all smiles, chocolate, and gratuitous tongue-kissing. Every now and then, I encountered certain couples that stood in stark contrast to the love I saw so much of throughout my life. They weren’t abusive or hateful. In a sense, they were their own tragedy, albeit not of the Shakespearean variety.

Picture a couple that’s about as passionate as a sick cat. There’s no fire in their romance. If there was, it burned out years ago and neither one of them cares enough to spark it again. They don’t necessarily hate each other. At best, they tolerate one another on a day-to-day basis, resigned to the fact that this is their life.

What I just described is not the kind of relationship that ends up on Jerry Springer or leads to protracted divorce hearings. They’re rarely that dramatic. If anything, they’re the antithesis to drama. That’s why those involved are so miserable. In a relationship like that, a clogged toilet counts as an adventure.

These kinds of relationships are not as easy to notice, but they do happen. You might even know a few, but I’d bet a stack of old Playboys that there are more than you think. Instead of love, passion, and heart, these relationships are fueled misery, laziness, and failure. At some point, those involved just stop trying to escape it.

In a world where people get worked up over dipping sauces and dress colors, it seems outrageous that anyone could be that callous and numb. It’s even more outrageous to think that a relationship could be built around it. However, there are powerful, unsexy forces at work and they’re not to be taken lightly.

This brings me to the concept of learned helplessness. If you’ve every taken a psychology course, you know what it is and you probably have an idea as to how it acts as kryptonite to love, romance, and passion. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a fairly easy concept. According to Wikipedia, the phenomenon is defined as follows:

[A] behavior typical of a human or an animal and occurs where the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn or accept “escape” or “avoidance” in new situations where such behavior would likely be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of aversive stimuli, has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying.

In terms of common behavioral traits, it’s somewhat bland. That doesn’t make it any less powerful, though. There is real, distressing science behind it, starting with experiments conducted in the 1960s. If you’re a dog lover, though, these experiments should be particularly disturbing.

If you’re also a fan of meaningful love, then you should be even more disturbed because it’s not hard to see how something like learned helplessness can creep into a relationship. For those trying to tell powerful, sexy stories, it’s important to know the signs.

The challenge, however, is that learned helplessness is one of those things that doesn’t happen all at once. Whether it’s those cruel experiments on dogs that I mentioned or continuous torture by the CIA, one painful experience is rarely enough. While love can manifest in a single moment, as is the case with “love at first sight,” learned helplessness takes a longer, more tedious road.

Sometimes it starts with boredom, a powerful feeling that I’ve discussed before. Sometimes it starts with frustration. Maybe a couple tries a few times to spice things up, but it doesn’t work. Maybe they try to shake up their routine, but that doesn’t work either. The key ingredient here is failure and frustrations, two experiences that tend to accumulate rapidly.

The couple involved may never get angry, resentful, or bitter to one another. Learned helplessness rarely inspires abuse or outright hatred. However, that’s part of what makes it so debilitating. When a relationship becomes abusive, one part of the relationship has a much stronger incentive to either escape or fight back. It’s hard to be lazy or apathetic when you feel like your well-being is at risk.

With learned helplessness, laziness and apathy are weaponized. That’s because without that incentive, neither side has the energy or desire to shake up the situation. Ending a relationship always requires some amount of upheaval, work, or effort. Someone under the influence of learned helplessness sees that as more trouble than it’s worth.

Beyond just rendering a relationship stale, the effects on your sex life can be just as debilitating. Once a couple gets to a point in their relationship where they’re just resigned to the fact that this is their normal, sex becomes less a treat and more a chore. Even if the orgasms still feel good, they’re barely distinguishable from masturbation.

That, by far, is the clearest sign that learned helplessness has consumed a relationship. As soon as sex becomes a chore, then it’s safe to say that two people have crossed the point of no return. They are beyond the point of rekindling whatever flame they once had. They just accept their misery and dispassion.

In defense of those poor souls, they don’t always have the luxury of ending that relationship and starting fresh. Sometimes, it’s because of their age. Sometimes, they’re in an environment where they don’t have anywhere else to go and few resources to work with. Then, there are times when the inconvenience just doesn’t justify the cost. It’s just easier to stay miserable than deal with the stress of rebuilding.

There’s little question that misery, depression, and boredom are bad for your love life, your sex drive, and everything in between. Learned helplessness is just the catalyst. Instead of blowing up in your face, love just whithers slowly like a piece of rotting fruit, getting emptier and deader with each passing day.

In some cases, it’s difficult to avoid. Some people just find themselves in relationships where they lose control and accept their misfortune. They’re content to just accept the misery and make the best of it, however fruitless it might be.

In others, you can take steps to avoid that kind of misery. Think back to those awful experiments involving dogs. After a while, the dog just stops trying to avoid the pain. The key to avoiding that kind of misery is to keep making an effort. Don’t stop trying. Do what you can to avoid mistakes. Moreover, do what you can to improve your situation, however possible.

That might mean pushing yourself when you don’t want to. It’s like exercising, which sometimes requires extra motivation. Within a relationship, it’s even more difficult because both you and your lover have to share in that motivation. You have to want to maintain that passion, even as you get older, have less energy, and feel less sexy.

In my experience, the most successful couples I know never truly stop dating each other. Even when they’ve been married for decades, they still carry themselves as a couple that’s still dating. They still go to interesting places, try new things, and explore new activities. Some aren’t always sexy, but they have the potential to be.

Every couple is different, but nobody benefits from learned helplessness. Whether you’re a dog, a dumb-ass, or a hopeless romantic, falling into that pit of apathy will never inspire your passion or increase your sex appeal. It’ll drain it, bit by bit.

Nobody deserves that. I certainly want to avoid that if and when I ever find a steady lover. I’m not a relationship expert or a therapist, nor should anybody assume I’m one, but I hope to help in whatever way I can. Whether it’s making people aware of learned helplessness or writing sexy novels, I intend to do my part.

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Filed under gender issues, Marriage and Relationships, War on Boredom

Another Lesson From The X-men: Does Power OR Stress Corrupt?

We’ve all heard it before, a saying so common and overplayed that our first reflex is to roll our eyes and think briefly whether those leftovers in the refrigerator are still edible. It manifests in many forms and is the theme of 98.7 percent of every movie featuring evil empires and overly rich assholes. We use many words, but most of us know the basics.

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I’ll give everyone a moment to finish yawning. I don’t blame you. As someone who has spent three quarters of his life reading superhero comics and seen nearly every movie that tried to rip off “Star Wars,” I’ve neither the energy nor the bandwidth to list all the stories that play with this theme so I’m not going to try.

Instead, I’m going to be a little bold and challenge that overplayed, overused theme that has been more belabored than a puke bucket at a bulimics convenstion. I’m also going to do it while citing X-men comics again, specifically another one featuring Jean Grey. Yes, I’m aware I’ve done that multiple times already. Yes, I’m going to keep doing that. No, I’m not going to apologize for it.

However, I’m not just going to focus on the events of a particular comic. While this post was inspired by Jean Grey #7, a comic written by Dennis Hopeless and drawn by Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque, it’s the bigger picture the story highlights that I want to focus on. I still encourage everyone to read the comic, but you don’t have to in order to appreciate its theme. It’s almost subversive in the larger message it implies.

Think back to that overplayed saying about power corrupting and try, if you can, to do it without yawning. Now, ask this follow-up question and try to do it with a straight face.

“Is it really power that corrupts? Is it possible that the stress that comes along with power is the true danger?”

I hope nobody’s yawning after that because that’s not a question that gets asked very often, but it’s one that Jean Grey ends up answering in Jean Grey #7, albeit indirectly. Given that it’s a question so few ask in the first place, it’s easy to overlook, but it’s worth thinking about.

Think, for a moment, about the impact that stress has on your life. That’s much easier than thinking/fantasizing about what it would be like to have absolute power. Unlike absolute power, there is some actual science behind the effects of stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, the impact of stress is basically the grand slam of negative health effects. Those effects include, but certainly aren’t limited to, nasty stuff like:

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Social withdrawal

These are all issues that negatively impact your personal life, your work life, your sex life, and pretty much every other life you hope to have as a functional human being. We all endure stress on some levels, but having too much of it is kind of like being really horny. You know when it happens and it’s hard to ignore.

With those effects in mind, imagine just how stressful it is wielding great power. It doesn’t even have to be like the cosmic power Jean Grey is destined to wield in Jean Grey #7. It could be a powerful political position. It could be a powerful business leader. Hell, it could just be the power that comes with being the head of a household.

It’s somewhat paradoxical in that it seems unavoidable. Gaining more power means dealing with more stress. However, we seek power, to some extent, in order to achieve our goals. More often than not, those goals involve alleviating certain stresses on our lives, be they poverty, strife, or simple inconvenience. In a sense, we exchange one form of stress for another and hope the other is easier to deal with.

Sometimes, those hopes don’t pan out. Sometimes, the stress that comes with whatever role that power brings us is more than we expect. In that state of mind, is it really that surprising that people become corrupt?

When I talked about powerful fascist states, I noted the extent to which they have to control the personal lives of others and how that can often be used against them. Those efforts, if you ignore the egregious abuses they entail, require some pretty stressful efforts that anyone not named Dr. Doom isn’t equipped to manage.

It creates, sort of, a chicken-and-egg scenario for the corruption that often follows. Was it the power in and of itself that led that corruption or was it the stress it entailed? While I doubt every situation has the same answer, the one in Jean Grey #7 has some intriguing possibilities.

In the context of this story, the same out-of-time Jean Grey that I’ve covered in previous posts is still dealing with the prospect of a cosmic power known as the Phoenix Force coming after her. She knows it’s destined to kill her. She knows how much it corrupts her, so much so that Fox is making a movie about it. It’s a stressful situation, to say the least.

However, Jean Grey isn’t the only overly powerful character in the diverse menagerie that is the Marvel Universe. Hell, overpowered characters in Marvel probably have their own lobbying group. One of their most notable members is Wanda “the Scarlet Witch” Maximoff. Like Jean Grey, she also wields exceedingly immense power that has driven her insane on more than one occasion.

Like a friend staging an intervention for someone they care about, Wanda seeks Jean out and basically has a girl’s day with her. She shows her that obsessing over the power they wield, or are destined to wield, will drive her just as crazy as the power itself. She dares to help Jean do normal, healthy things that don’t involve stressing out over that power.

Some of those things involve stuff actual people do, like going to a beach or running on a hot sunny day. Others are a bit more exotic, like a cooking class that involves monster meat. I swear on Jennifer Lawrence’s ass that I’m not making that up.

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The events of Jean Grey #7 make a compelling case about the impact of stress over power. The fact that there are other powerful characters throughout the Marvel universe that manage to function on a day-to-day basis without going insane proves, to some extent, that power and corruption need not be the same thing.

Eventually, circumstances within Jean Grey #7 that are beyond Jean’s control derail her efforts to better manage her stress. In a sense, that’s another part of wielding power and the corruption that comes with it. No matter how much power anyone has, be they a comic book character or a warlord in a third-world country, they are still at the mercy of various circumstances beyond their control.

Jean Grey, and most other superheroes, often learn that the hard way. People in real life who wield great power deal with that as well, sometimes in a very public way. Whether you’re Jean Grey or Emporer Palpatine, it’s impossible to deal with every conceivable circumstance that may undermine your power or stress you out. For some people, that just compounds the stress.

In the end, Jean Grey #7 leaves the question surrounding power, corruption, and stress unanswered. However, the fact it dares to ask that question in the first place and make a concerted effort is what really sets it apart. The original Phoenix Saga never asked that question directly, but its indirect implications reveal a lot about how we think of power, corruption, and beautiful female superheroes played by Sophie Turner.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Jack Fisher's Insights, Reasons and Excuses

Being Right Vs. Winning An Argument Vs. Ben Shapiro

There’s an old saying that I just made up a few seconds ago, old being a relative term.

“You can either win the argument by merit or be right in principle, but only one matters in the long run.”

It sounds cynical, but it’s something I think most people realize at some point in our lives. The truth is a harsh mistress and it’s rarely the sexy kind. Truth is the kind of mistress that has no safe word, never offers any lube, and rarely gives overt warnings. When she wants to whip us in our most sensitive areas, she’ll do so without asking for permission or a second thought.

I’ll ease up on the BDSM terminology because I’m trying to make a serious point, one that’s a lot more relative in the era of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” More and more, we’re learning the hard way that our caveman brains aren’t equipped to seek truth. Survival and reproduction are our primary imperatives. Truth is optional, at best, and an afterthought at worst.

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It’s for that very reason that public debates or major speaking present a false sense of perspective that exploits our caveman brains. It gives the impression that the truth can be presented in a slick, concise, and easy-to-digest message that helps us make sense of the world. That kind of certainty in an world of cheap knock-offs and practical jokes is more valuable to our psyche than gold, diamonds, and good Wi-Fi.

I say that as someone who finds a lot of entertainment value in debates. For a time, one of my favorite things to do was to look up debates between scientists and creationists, which always seems to bring out the best and worst of our caveman brains. They nicely highlight how real, functioning human beings can hold such radically different viewpoints, as well as the excuses they’ll make to cling to those viewpoints.

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I won’t get into all the absurdities behind creationist debates. That’s not what prompted this post. The primary inspiration for this topic came from the recent news surrounding Ben Shapiro’s recent speaking gig at UC Berkeley. By every measure, this incident highlights all the problems with such debates better than any creationist ever could.

For those of you who don’t know who Ben Shapiro is, it’s not too hard to know what he’s about. He’s a fast-talking, quick-witted talking head in a media landscape that’s full of them. He specializes in espousing staunch conservative principles and you could make the case he does it better than almost any other conservative, at this point.

Personally, I like Mr. Shaprio’s style and I agree with some of the points he makes and not just because he makes them well. Many of them are points I’ve come to embrace on my own accord in trying to make sense of this crazy world. However, as much as I respect the man and his principles, he does embody a dangerous phenomenon that is becoming more prevalent in the digital age.

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It’s one born from that not-so-old saying I mentioned earlier about being right versus winning an argument. They are not the same thing, but they’re easy to confuse, thanks largely to our caveman brains.

Think back to the Simpson Filter in appealing to large swaths of people. For the Homer and Marge Simpsons of the world, winning the argument is enough to win them over. They leave the truth for the sad, lonely, and miserable Lisa Simpsons of the world that nobody listens to.

Ben Shaprio, and others like him, are highly skilled at using the Simpson Filter to get their message across. They’re slick, compelling, and charismatic in the sense that they check all the boxes that appeal to our tribal instincts, which I’ve noted before are a major source of conflict.

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By appealing to these instincts, they don’t have to be completely right. They don’t even have to be half-right. They just have to get people thinking and feeling that it’s right, so much so that they won’t bother checking the facts, doing some research of their own, or even giving it a second thought. Why would they? Ben Shaprio comes off as so smart and so knowledgable that he’s done the thinking for us.

Therein lies the biggest problem, though. By focusing on the argument and not the truth, it’s easy to conflate the two. Ben Shapiro is not a scientist, an economist, a politician, a philosopher, or even a used car salesman. He’s just a commentator, who happens to be exceptionally well at commentating in an articulate manner. That’s a valuable skill, but it’s not the same as being correct.

This actually played out in another event that occurred earlier this year at Politicon 2017. At that event, Ben Shapiro debated Cenk Uygur, another professional commentator who is at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Like Shapiro, I respect Mr. Uygur and agree with some of his positions. However, he is not as skilled a debater as Mr. Shapiro.

If you watch the debate, listen to the crowd, and note the speaking styles of both men, it’s not hard to see who has more skill and experience in that field. If you read the comments and look at the reactions, most agree that Mr. Shapiro won that debate. I’m sure it’s not the first debate he’s won, nor will it be the last.

That’s just it, though. Mr. Shapiro could win a billion more debates against a billion other people much smarter than Mr. Uygur. He could go down in history as the most skilled debater in the history of the human race. It still wouldn’t change one inescapable fact.

The real world, as in the world that operates outside our caveman brains, doesn’t give two whiffs of dried wolf shit about who wins a debate or by how much. Reality still operates under the same facts, rules, and principles. People still operate in ways that are at the mercy of their caveman brains and their collective circumstances.

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Ben Shapiro could convince every person on this planet that Ronald Reagan was right about everything, that the Jewish religion that he practices is the only correct one, and that everyone whoever worked for Hillary Clinton was an alien spy. That still doesn’t change reality. At the end of the day, the truth is still that same harsh mistress that will whip all our asses without warning.

That’s why, in the long run, it doesn’t matter how many debates Ben Shapiro or others like him win. It doesn’t matter how well they craft their message. In the long run, if their ideas don’t line up with reality, then reality will eventually win out. It always does. People die, take their ideas with them, and leave reality to sort out the rest.

Now, I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Shapiro is sincere in his beliefs. I also don’t doubt that his opponents, like Cenk Uygur are just as sincere. That’s why I wouldn’t classify them as professional trolls, such as the Ann Coulters and Lena Dunhams of the world.

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They don’t say what they say, just to provoke our caveman brains and draw attention to themselves. They aren’t outright con-artists either, like certain televangelists. They’re just good at conveying their ideas and making them feel legitimate. Unfortunately, that’s as far as they can take it.

Ben Shapiro, Cenk Uygur, and everyone like them may think they have the answers. They may even believe that their way will make the world a better place, as a whole. They’re not entirely malicious in attempting to convey their points, but they are misguided.

There’s also a danger to their approach, conflating debates with truth. They present the false impression that an issue like politics, evolution, and economics can be resolved through simple debate through a series of talking points. As anyone who has worked with a tax attorney knows, that’s just not how the real world operates.

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The world is complicated, complex, and chaotic. No human brain, or collection of human brains, is equipped to make sense of it. Some of these issues aren’t just complex, either. They’re impossible to resolve because there just aren’t enough resources for everyone.

A skilled debater, like Ben Shapiro, is good at convincing people there are quick fixes. The world can be improved simply by adopting the policies of his favorite ideology. He may convince you, me, and everyone around you that he’s right.

The truth, however, can never be swayed by fast talking, fancy rhetoric, or skilled arguments. At the end of the day, it will stay on the side of the harsh mistress that is reality. In the short term, the Ben Shapiro’s of the world will be able to bask in many victorious debates. In the long term, however, the truth knows whose asses will be stinging in the end.

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