The Extremis Virus: Modern Annoyances of the Political Ninja

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“Our age knows nothing but reaction, and leaps from one extreme to another.” ~ Reinhold Niebuhr

I should clarify this not a nerdy post about the Iron Man 3 movie or the comic arc it spawns from. Rather my focus is on the absolutist filter so many of us choose to view the world through. This isn’t the first time I’ve commented on my particular qualms with those who refuse to see the world in its various shades of gray and instead try to boil everything down to a simple black and white, right and wrong conclusion. This fallacious narrow view of the world permeates every level of our society and the reasons for why this is unwise are just as common. So instead of rehashing the complexity of life and going to great detail on why I think we need to avoid tacking to either extreme I will instead delve into a few areas where this extreme ideology is most disturbing.

Societal norms, most notably the idea that everyone needs to progress into the next stage of life by the same path is an example of a monolithic point of view that fails to recognize alternative points of view (Say that ten times fast). I find this most prevalent when it comes to the idea of marriage and family. Once you get to a certain age, it’s almost impossible to avoid the question of when are you getting married. My problems with this stems from the fact, marriage should be something entered into after a great deal of thought and reflection. Not something just assumed as a necessary part of one’s life. Every relationship and individual is different and in some cases maybe marriage is not an ideal fit. Maybe instead of viewing marriage as definitive step into adulthood, we should view it as merely one of many option one can take on their quest to a complete life.

Political discourse is poisoned by a view un-open to compromise. Listening to a debate on any policy issue and you would think each side came from different realities. I can find definitive statements with a simple google search that swear Barack Obama is a secret muslim bent on destroying the country, and in the same search uncover a claim that he is the second-coming of Christ and will lead us to World Peace. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but the debates happening on our televisions, over the internet and in the halls of Congress can border on this level of extreme rhetoric. There are many things according to hard facts are true, but most often solutions require taking ideas from both sides of the debate and finding the middle solution. The one that doesn’t suggest dramatic adherence to the left or the right, but rather sees that most often the gray areas that exist in the world often require equally gray proposals is probably the right one.

Personal disagreements always seem to devolve into “always” and “never” scenarios.  I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. We find ourselves in an emotional argument and we start throwing out statements like, “George Lucas always ruins movies” and “I’m never going to another Star Wars movie again.” Well, maybe that specific example just applies to me. The point is, we make definitive statements when we are emotionally charged that are not true, and only serve to create further discord. This becomes exceptionally problematic in cases where the individuals throwing these words out refuse to acknowledge when they are wrong. So next time before you find yourself saying always or never, stop and take a moment to remember that Mr. Lucas made a number of quality movies before he started ruining them.

So there you have it, a few specific example of when the notorious extremis virus infects the world we live in. Will this rampant definitive approach to life continue? Probably. However, if we all try to listen to each other’s points of view and recognize there may be some validity there, we can go a long way in limiting its existence. Or at the very least harness it into liquid form and create the world’s next big energy drink sensation: Extremis.

Door Number Twenty-One: Simple Simplification

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“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~Confucius

So it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything (Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?). Even longer since I’ve tried to embark on the daunting task of discovering one’s 50 doors to happiness. Realistically speaking, 50 may have been too lofty a number. Not that one shouldn’t shoot for the moon, but at this rate I’m going to finish this series right around the time George RR Martin finishes the final Song of Fire and Ice book (at least I have a few more years than he does to pull it off.) In the spirit of complicated blog posts I figured I would embrace its polar opposite and introduce door number 21, simplification.

What does simplification mean exactly? I suppose you can take it at face value and say it means making things less complicated. However, sometimes they need to be that way. Ikea furniture is great and all, but it is not exactly the shining example of durability. No, if you really want something of quality you have to delve into the details which don’t tend to be simple at all. That’s why the aforementioned Song of Fire and Ice (or as the television audience knows it, Game of Thrones) is so popular. Layers on top of layers. I’m not making the most compelling case so far, am I?

I think the key, as it relates to improving one’s life anyways, is to find areas more complicated than they need to be and simplify them. For example, many of us spend a disproportionate amount of our day reading articles online. This eats up a great deal of time and leads to an unconscious stress that causes more trouble than its worth. One solution to this specific dilemma would be to simply limit the amount time we spend online. Or ya know, just use Feedly. The point of this complicated web of descriptive nonsense is there are usually easy steps we can take to eliminate excess effort in our lives.

Another advantage to pursuing this path to happiness is you can always add things back if you go to far. Take the example of a complex workout plan. Say you decide your crazy boot camp workout is taking too much time and causing you to dread the mere mention of the world fitness. You slowly start eliminating exercises until your down to just running a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, as anyone who has drastically cut back on exercise can tell you, your likely to get less than satisfactory results after a certain point. Fortunately, you can just add things back until the results balance with the desired energy expended. This can applied to anything in life, including Netflix marathons (damn you West Wing).

So on to the real point behind pursuing this door. How does this actually lead to a more fulfilling life? Well for one, it eliminates unnecessary stress. So many times I’ve made things way more complicated than they needed to be (pro tip: sometimes its better to just ask for directions). It also frees up mental and physical energy for more exciting endeavors. So instead of checking your phone 30 time a day just in case someone posts something interesting on Facebook (they didn’t) maybe take that time to go on an epic bike riding, photographing adventure (and then post those photos to Facebook). Lastly, simplicity is the mother of clarity. The less clouds we crowd our life with the more likely we will be able to see the small miracles occurring every day. And for the record, I’m not talking about Midi-chlorians.

Fresh Ideas? I Think Not.

“To summarize, then, the true Romney plan is to create an economic boom through the sheer power of Mr. Romney’s personal awesomeness.” ~Paul Krugman

As another presidential election reaches its climax, the polls in the country have tightened up dramatically. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney find themselves in a virtual dead heat in many national polls. This in due in part to what is the dampening of enthusiasm among many former Obama supporters. Add in the tendency by many independents to “throw the bums out” when thing don’t improve quickly and dramatically and it is no wonder Mitt Romney is threatening to end the Obama presidency at one term. However, the idea Romney’s proposed economic policy to reduce tax rates for everyone (including the very rich), reduce the deficit, and eliminate regulations are fresh ideas beyond the failed economic policies of his Republican predecessor just does not add up.

Take the first, and arguably most central tenet to the Romney campaign’s plan for creating jobs: tax cuts. Throughout history, Republican politicians have argued cutting taxes are the key to economic recovery. Furthermore, they have aimed those tax cuts at the higher income earners in some misplaced belief that by reducing taxes on the very rich the economic benefits will trickle down to the rest of society. However, according to a recent study, the increase in GDP from tax cuts on the very rich is statistically insignificant. Furthermore, it was similar economic policy to this that lead the country into the most recent economic recession in the first place. Hardly a fresh idea.

Another cornerstone of the Romney/Ryan proposed economic plan, is the need for deficit reduction. Not only is this not a new idea (deficit reduction has been a part of the federal policy conversation in every election over the past decade or so), the aforementioned tax cuts do nothing to help reduce the deficit. In fact, according to some, these tax cuts could amount to as much as $5 trillion addition to the national debt. While the final number regarding the amount added to the debt is not a certain, no matter how you look at it, cutting taxes will need to be paid for. As one can see, thanks to this handy tool from the New York Times, one can not reduce the deficit significantly through cuts alone without severe ramifications for programs that benefit millions of Americans. Rather than a boon to the economy, this is a merely a recycled proposal to use deficit reduction as a guise to shrink the social safety net. Once again, nothing fresh about that.

The final central, albeit somewhat vague, proposal being put forth by Mitt Romney in order to stimulate the economy is to reduce regulations in order to allow to small business to prosper. There are number of problems with this idea. First, among the regulations he has targeted as needing to be eliminated or reduced are those recently placed on the financial industry by the Dodd-Frank Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a bill meant to prevent another banking crisis. This is a backwards thinking at best and could lead the economy right back to the brink of collapse. Also, treating regulatory agencies as an impediment to economic gain, rather than the protection against irresponsible business practices they are, does our society a disservice and can lead to dire consequences for the environment and health of our communities. Going after regulations, rather than acknowledging their importance in society is hardly a new proposal that will lead to massive benefits to the economy.

While there are many reasons to be dissatisfied with our current president, the reality is things have been getting progressively better. Furthermore, an economic policy focusing on reductions in the tax rate, the deficit and regulations is neither new nor the answer going forward. We must instead invest money in infrastructure, education, and energy. While Obama has not fulfilled all of his promise, I believe he has done enough to deserve another term. One thing is clear, while his vision may not be “fresh” it is the better prescription for what this country needs going forward.

Why the Magic Fades

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” ~ Robert Frost

If my recent adventures in risk experimentation have taught me anything this past month, it’s that nothing is quite as daunting as the mind makes it. While this is an extremely helpful piece of knowledge when approaching intimidating tasks, it is not without it drawbacks. In fact, when things become approachable they lose a lot of the mystery and splendor that surround them. Something vital to existence, but detrimental to maintaining the feeling of importance in one’s every day tasks. The older I get the harder it is to find the magic in everyday life. As usual, I have a few theories as to why this happens.

Possibility is more exciting than reality. Now that is not to say residing in the real world is a boring waste of time, and that we should embark on a never-ending quest into the unknown. Last I checked, “adventurer” was a title confined to the more fantastic elements of fantasy and science-fiction (which, consequently, is why I still want to be Indiana Jones when I grow up). However, no matter how exciting an event in my life has been, it has paled in comparison with the many possible scenarios my mind has created in anticipation of it. Obviously, this has a lot to do with the brain’s tendency to focus more on the positive elements of an experience and less on the negative ones. Which, as anyone who has done anything can tell you, life is a mixed bag of the good and the bad. Furthermore, the older we get, the more our grandiose plans for the future slowly give way to the realities of the present, thus taking a small bit of the wonder with it.

Information robs us of our innocence. The greatest thing about being a kid, is the entire world is unexplored and left for us to discover. As we get older we slowly learn more and more about the universe (Like, for example, *Spoiler Alert* Santa Claus is not real, though I’m not quite certain science has been able to indisputably prove this fact). Slowly, we begin to accept that most things in life are far less epic than the stories we are told growing up. We’ll probably never come face to face with a wizard, fight a dragon, or embark in a lightsaber duel for the fate of the galaxy (though I will have a lightsaber one day, even if I have to invent myself). Now don’t get me wrong, clinging to untruths (like the non-existence of climate change) and writing off the pursuit of higher knowledge as something for snobs is not good advice for any society. However, taking on the responsibility of becoming informed, well-adjusted adults inevitably causes us to lose a little more of the magic. Alternatively, you could always run off to wizardry school and throw of the cruel shackles of reality once and for all with this guy.

Responsibility overwhelms all other considerations. Life is full of highly anticipated moments. Be it little things, like an epic poker night with friends to large things like getting married or the much-anticipated premier of The Avenger’s Movie (and yes they are equally important). The more responsibility we take on, the less we are able to truly focus on the excellence of these moments. We find ourselves unable to immerse ourselves in the extraordinary nature of what we are experiencing, because deep down we know the shadowy figures of duty may be looming just around the corner. Once again this is merely a necessary part of the transition into adulthood and it is probably best not to throw it to the wayside in favor of forming an underground terrorist unit with your imaginary friend.

So now that I have thoroughly depressed anyone unfortunate enough to read this, what to do? Surrender to the cold, hard reality, that as we get older all the magic will fade out of existence? Or should we revert to a state of mind where we reject all responsibility and knowledge in favor of the ancient teachings of the great Wizard Oberon Zell-Ravenheart? Neither of these are probably realistic approaches to solving this dilemma (though if I ever have to traverse an underground mine, I will definitely be giving that guy a call). I wish I could say I had the panacea to this particular problem, but sadly the best I can offer is this piece of advice from the wise, albeit mythical, Albus Dumbledore: It is important to fight and fight again, and keep fighting…

4 Reflections from the Summer of Jered

It light of the impending end of the summer and by extension the “Summer of Jered” I thought it might be good to deviate from my usual aloof assessment of various political and philosophical topics to reflect on what was learned during this adventures of this era of awesomeness. When looking back on any period of time it is tempting to reminisce about the various adventures and events that occurred and how great they were. However, I find it’s better to focus on the lessons learned rather than get bogged down in the specifics. So without further ado, into the rabbit hole we go.

Lesson 1. Spontaneous adventures are more exciting than those planned in advance.

Some of the greatest moments of this summer would have made Yoda himself scowl in disappointment. I think the main reason he scoffed at the idea of adventure and excitement, is probably because of how calculated your average Jedi usually is, a calculation not present in this Jedi’s summer. When you have a plan for every situation, it is far more difficult to truly embrace the excellence of the situation. For example, planning to go on a vacation with a very specific itinerary while maybe enjoyable, lacks the rush one gets from say, jumping in a lake at 3:00 am. While having a plan is probably advisable for a great deal of things in our lives, sometimes its better to just throw caution to the wind and see where our feet take us. Besides, to paraphrase Mr. Steinbeck, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry anyway.

Lesson 2. Time only continues to accelerate as we get older, making it important to take risks.

In other words, sometimes we need to take the red pill. Over the years it has become apparent, that put in the same situation as Neo, I may have taken the blue pill. While avoiding risk is not always a bad idea, sometimes we need to step outside our comfort zones and embrace a bit of uncertainty. No one ever affected great change in the world without walking a line bordering the realm of danger. Be it in the everyday decisions like trying new foods, or in the grander life changing events like changing professions, risks are required to reach our full potential. T.S. Elliot probably said it best, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Lesson 3. The great moments of life are made great by the company you share them with.

Without Chewbacca, Han Solo is just an unsavory space smuggler who would have most likely fallen to his demise long before realizing his greater destiny. Similarly, we see the reflections of our actions and experiences through those we choose to share them with. All the excellence of experience in the world means nothing if you are unable to share it with others. While there is something to be said about the comfort of solitude, when it comes to truly embracing life, it is an activity best embarked upon with trusted confidants. As time passes us by we may forget the minor details of the journeys we have been on, but the people we shared them with remain in our thoughts long after all else fades away.

Lesson 4. Life is what you make it.

For all intents and purposes, nothing about this summer separated it from those that came before it. Well, except for my perception of course. I determined to approach every opportunity as a chance for another epic adventure. Leaping at any chance to make the summer worthy of its summer of jered hashtag. Jumping in lakes, sleeping on random hotel floors, stepping outside the realm of comfort. All required taking control of life and making it worthy of the expectations I had for it. Even when things don’t work out, adapting to the situation in a way that fits the view you have for your life is key. After all, in the words of George Bernard Scott, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life’s about creating yourself.”

The Crisis of the Absolute

“Only a sith deals in absolutes!” -Obi Wan Kenobi

With all the outrage over the recent government deadlock one would think we might be more open to compromise in our lives and less prone to the pitfalls of absolutist natures. Unfortunately, this desire for our government to reach a consensus does not translate to the personal views of most individuals. We cry out for compromise, but what we really want is for people to see things our way. This strict inflexibility translates into all facets of life from our religion to our professional lives. What needs to be understood is why this obvious contradiction exists and what we can do to remedy it.

Growing up, we are immediately indoctrinated with this mixed messaging. We are told it is important to get along with one another and we can not always get what we want. However, at the same time are presented a very black and white set of rules which we must follow, no questions asked. While these rules are there to encourage us to grow up as fully-functioning adults, when they are presented as ultimate truth, a seed of respect for blind authority is planted. Coupled with the insistence that sometimes we need to sacrifice what we want for others, we are given a very conflicting view of the world. A sentiment that translates itself to an odd mix of absolutism and pseudo consensus.

As we get older we start to question the rules we were told to blindly follow in our younger years. We rebel against our parents, question authority, and embark on countless activities we probably shouldn’t. On the other hand, because many of the ideas of compromise we were taught in our youth come from the same place as the rules we are fighting against we reject it and feel as though the world is out to get us. However we still want people to work with us, it just becomes a more self-serving sort of cooperation. Fortunately, as we mature we lose this narrow world view and replace it with a unique individualism.

The absolutes of our adulthood are shaped by our experiences. For some of us, our religious faith causes us to reject any viewpoint different from the dogma we subscribe to. Even when it becomes apparent certain stances held are not actually in line with the core of what we believe. Furthermore, our political philosophies, usually formulated either by our parents or during our college years, cause us to see the world as full of right and wrong decisions. For this reason, religion and politics tend to be the most divisive topics of discussion, leading to conversations that accomplish nothing and leave everyone angry.

What do we do in a world of seeming absolutes? First, we need to accept the fact we may not always have the right answer. That some of our most deep seeded values may need to be reevaluated. Even if we find the absolute to be the proper path, acceptance of a lesser middle path may be necessary. Finally, we must be able to question both our own and the world’s truths. Only by allowing multiple points of view a chance to shine, will we be better able to understand the different shades of gray that make up the world.

Ardent Ambition vs. Complacent Contentment

“Content is a word unknown to life; it is also a word unknown to man.” – John Fowles

So much of our lives we are told the secret to happiness lies in our ability to be content with what we have. A noble sentiment far easier to accept if we were not simultaneously encouraged to aim for something better than what we currently have. Complete contradictions of one another these competing philosophies are driven into our heads from the moment we are born. On one hand there will always be something beyond our reach so accepting one’s place in the world seems like the route to take. However, the desire to achieve more has driven some of the greatest innovations in history. Considering both ideas can be seen as logical options, what then is the true secret to happiness and success?

Acceptance of our circumstances seems to be the nobler of the two. So much pain and sadness can come from the constant need to have something better.  Corruption, greed, theft: all of these arise from a desire to have something we do not possess. Not to mention the perils that come with thinking the grass is always greener on the other side. Taken to the extreme this can lead to a never-ending quest for satisfaction that will most likely leave one miserable and completely discontent. Take Anakin Skywalker for example, his inability to accept his fate lead to the downfall of a Republic and the near eradication of the Jedi.  The Rise of the Empire aside, completely disregarding the pursuit of something greater is not without its downsides.

As potentially perilous as the notion of more equals happier can be, its not without merit. As mentioned earlier, without a thirst for improvement, some of the worlds’ greatest accomplishments might never have occurred. Had the United States and the former Soviet Union not desired something more its unlikely we would have put a man in outer space much less the moon. Had great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. not desired something better than life had given them, we might never have seen an African-American elected to the Presidency of the United States. Had George Lucas settled for the technology of his day, we may never have gotten the adventures of a young boy from Tattoine that has become one of the most influential movie franchises of all time. While some may choose to disagree with that last point, the simple fact remains, refusing to be content with the current state of things has lead to some of the greatest moments in our collective history.

What then must we do? Should we continue to walk the line between wanting it all and being content with nothing? Should we completely forsake the pursuit of something greater, in order to appreciate our current state? Or should we abandon our long term peace of mind in order to drive us and our motivations consistently upward? All great questions, with no clear answers.

Despite the ambiguity of it all it is important we find a balance between the two. We must not obsess with the things and opportunities we do not have. Inversely, allowing ourselves to simply fall into a simple complacency that prevents us from rising to life’s many challenges is not acceptable either. It is only in this paradox and all of its complexity one might find true happiness. Eleanor Roosevelt perhaps said it best, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”