Making Time to Live

Last weekend, I married the love of my life. The earth slowed, silencing its noise, and the only thing left was our two hearts beating as one. We experienced joy we had never felt before.

Since we are using this time to live peacefully, intentionally, and contentedly as husband and wife, I will resume posting in the last few weeks of July.

When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge

Last weekend, I enjoyed a long lunch in the city with my fiancé and our friend Jon. Afterwards, we needed to get to Lincoln Park, and had been planning on taking the CTA. But, when it came time to depart, we made the impromptu decision to walk. It was a gorgeous late spring day in Chicago - perfect for a four mile stroll.

This may not be the best example, but it is an example nonetheless. We chose to walk, breaking our pattern. We changed our plan. We simply traveled north, barely consulting our GPS. We decided to meander through the zoo - it's free! why not? - and, to my elation, we happened upon an amazing art piece near Lincoln Park Zoo's South Pond. I had seen photos of this arch in my Instagram feed, and often wondered where it was, reaching its curvaceous wooden beams towards the sky.

As the arch meets the sky, a pattern is broken, and an appreciation for art and nature takes over. Instead of thinking about the negative impact that civilization has on the world, we think of the positive. Our impulsive decision to forgo public transportation was validated. This arch offered us a zen retreat in the midst of car horns and bustling commuters. Surrounded by a natural prairie landscape, this place provided an entrance to a new world of calm and peace.

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.” - Tuli Kupferberg
 

Stop Overthinking

"The more you overthink, the less you will understand."

-Habeeb Akande

“I'm tired of being inside my head. I want to live out here, with you.” - Colleen McCarthy. Photo taken outside of Detroit, MI, 2014.

“I'm tired of being inside my head. I want to live out here, with you.” - Colleen McCarthy. Photo taken outside of Detroit, MI, 2014.

I used to spend a lot of time overthinking.

Trapped in that never-ending "what-if" loop, I'd stress about how intruders might access my apartment. What if I left the candle burning at home? Will the hissing radiator explode while I'm at work? What if I made the wrong impression at dinner last night? What if I talked too much, or too little? Sometimes I'd feel for my wallet or keys three times in the course of a train commute. It made my heart palpitate a little less. 

I'd often ruminate on nonexistent symptoms. What if I had a terminal illness? I'd self-diagnose a skin anomaly on Web MD until concluding that I must immediately seek a specialist. I'd visualize my death, create my will, divide up possessions among family members, and my plan my ashes to be scattered at sea, despite a propensity for seasickness. In this real-life scenario, circa 2007, I actually did consult a specialist who, after a physical evaluation, told me there was absolutely nothing wrong with me, and that I was worrying too much. At that moment, I didn't feel relieved. Instead, I felt like an idiot. 

I thought it was a normal part of life to decipher codes and hidden meanings everywhere. Doesn't every intelligent person do this?

Actually, no. 

At the times where my worrying reached its peak, I wasn't happy with my life. My unhappiness was caused by fear, which in turn revealed overwhelming, incessant worrying. I was afraid of being alone, afraid of failing, and afraid of my future. Through analyzing my own experience, others' experiences, and through research, I've learned that overthinking is a symptom of the distressed and isolated. I've learned that fear can lead to social anxiety, and sometimes even avoidance of social activities altogether. People who are afraid of social interaction have a tendency to self-medicate through various outlets, such as shopping, spending hours on Netflix, social media, or abusing substances or food. These distractions may help for a bit, but ultimately they mask our fear, helping it fester deep within our minds, until it explodes when we least expect it, destroying relationships and our health. 

When we feel that life is in disorder, we devote too much time to the negative. In fear, we overthink things, and we cling to solutions to the wrong problems. We dwell on things that didn't go well, and constantly think up worst case scenarios. Often, its a general lack of confidence that causes us to worry, or perhaps its that we feel that worrying will protect us from harm. Yes, back in caveman times when we were hunters and gatherers, stress did actually protect us from harm, as in death via saber-toothed tiger. Fast-forward to present day, we still get the same stress signals, but from benign sources that aren't life threatening. Now, at the prospect of failing, let's say, the written portion of the driver's test at the DMV, our hearts pump three times their normal speed, sending more blood to our limbs. Capillaries close down, sending our blood pressure up, so that we can theoretically "sustain a surface wound and not bleed to death. Even our eyes dilate so that we can see better" (Stress Stop 2009). Our bodies and minds have trouble telling the difference between an encounter with a saber tooth tiger and a multiple-choice test. 

There are ways we can help our bodies and minds acknowledge the difference. To combat overthinking   and overreacting, we can practice the following: 

1. Notice and appreciate our thoughts - If we take account of the situation, and put it into perspective, we might be able to understand the reasons behind our catastrophic thinking patterns. Some might suggest keeping a journal to chart the frequency of our negative thoughts. 

2. Spend time outside - Nature has a way of soothing us, taking us back to simpler times. All is well when the birds are chirping, the streams are flowing, and animals scamper to and fro. Time spent on trail or camping might increase our confidence to a point where there is no room for worrying. 

3. Exercise - Studies show that exercise is very effective at increasing alertness, and enhancing our brain function by releasing natural endorphins, aka pain killers Physical activity can actually trick us into feeling happier, making us actually happier. 

4. Socialize - Seek out your friends and loved ones. Talk to them. Make meaningful memories with them. They can help you see past your worries, give you some perspective and alleviate your loneliness. 

5. Breathe - Take some time to breathe, in and out, slowly. This naturally reduces your blood pressure and heart rate, calming you down so that you can see clearly. 

6. Let go - Know that you can only control what you do, say, or feel. You can't control anything that happens "at" you, and you can't control what other people do. You are in control of yourself, so let all of those worries go! Be grateful for what you have, and know that you will be OK. 

 

For more methods to overcome worrying, check out the following related posts -

Learn from Loneliness

Acknowledge Fear

Breathe

Unburden by Choice

Be Free

 

Creation over Consumption

“Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

-George Bernard Shaw
 

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When I was a child, I spent my free time building forts with my brother. We foraged wood from nearby construction sites, acquired hammers and nails from the basement, and used power tools without consent. Adjacent to our dream homes, we sandwiched a small oven rack between some bricks, producing a small but effective stove where we roasted lunch meat to survive in our suburban Chicago backyard. It was 1993 and we were about 10 years old.

When indoors, we drew, sculpted, painted, and cultivated various amphibious creatures in tanks scattered throughout our two bedroom house shared with our parents and baby brother. We wrote stories, played endless games of Stratego, and were known to construct elaborate puppet shows, complete with sets, drapery, and lighting to entertain our parents during dinner.

We hit puberty, and our activities no longer fully aligned. He would go off with his friends, who would spend hours in the neighbor's driveway, perfecting their kick-flips, ollies, and riding fakey, while my best friend Julia and I played dress-up, and filmed intricate scenes based on the relationship between a girl and an eccentric gypsy, complete with commercial breaks. During winter, Julia and I were also known to don full snowsuits, pack two snickers bars each, and pretend to go ice fishing in the field behind our school. Our imaginations were at their peak.

As we aged, our collective creativity trickled off, mine nearly extinguished by the time high school was over. Adolescence had a kind of sobering quality; those years taught me that I would always be judged, and that others' opinions mattered. At least, that was my reality. My creative impulses became more secretive, isolated, and tinged with guilt. I knew I should continue writing, drawing, dancing, and playing piano - I felt guilty that I wasn't - but I also felt the magnetism of "adulthood" and "finding myself" and "real job." All these serious phases loomed over me, causing anxiety. Even though I wanted to grow up quickly and escape my teenage years, I also longed for a distraction. And, for a teen in the late 90’s, that distraction was the mall.

I discovered the elation of buying. The excitement of Anthropologie, which I felt was a store that truly spoke to me, due to its whimsical merchandising, artfully displayed clothes, and patchouli scented candles disguised as keepsake boxes. I didn't buy everything I saw. I was, and have always been, frugal and savings-oriented. However, visiting Old Orchard Mall on a Saturday afternoon was so much easier than facing the daily rigors of high school. I preferred to distract myself, losing myself instead of finding myself. Drifting in a sea of want, dazed by the anticipation of acquisition, and pacified by the instant gratification of a purchase. 

Most people find it much easier to consume rather than create. Creativity takes time, patience, and space to be inspired. Oftentimes, creativity necessitates isolation from our busy lives. None of these things come easily, as life can overwhelm us with increased responsibility. We long to revert to our childhood, a place of playful creativity, and eschew the anxieties of the present.

Instead of accepting the challenge to create or cultivate some aspect of life, we often find escape in our phones. We scroll through our news-feeds, and live vicariously through other people's lives. We switch to Instagram, where we absorb what has been labeled "digital crack" by The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, in one of their earlier podcasts. Succumbing to the anxiety produced by life's challenges, we pacify ourselves with various outlets of instant gratification. We do this at work, while commuting or waiting in line for coffee. Instead of connecting with ourselves, our tasks, and other people, we hide behind instant gratification.

Instant gratification is just that: instant, ephemeral, fleeting. Distracting ourselves doesn't help us to be better people. It only leads us away from our true selves and our goals in life. Instead of purchasing needless items, we can take account of the material possessions we already own. Instead of heeding the notifications of our devices, we can connect with those around us. It takes some effort, but it is very possible to access the creative impulses of our childhood.

When we understand the goals of creating and adding value to our lives, we will be able to focus on what will make us better people. We can find the strength to grow with each experience and moment, and to contribute to the world around us. When we find value in our lives, not our possessions or our distractions, we can add value to the world. When we create or cultivate meaningfully, we thrive.

 

Interrupt the Cubicles of Monotony

“When things don't change, their sameness becomes an accretion. That is why all society puts on flesh, succumbs to the cubicles and begins to fill them.”

Tennessee Williams

Not long ago, one of my former students surprised me with an existential question. After lamenting that the monotony of life was "getting him down," he asked me what the secret was: "How do people survive the monotony of high school?" He cited the dullness of each day repeating just as the last: getting up, going to school, studying and doing homework, going home, eating and sleeping, only to hope for the same thing again the next day. He feared an uneventful, depressing life, one where he would go through the motions simply because it was expected of him, without any other reason.

If we all had this particular perspective, life would surely seem pointless, dull, and depressing. Unfortunately, many people go through the motions without any thought to each day's investment towards a future. In order to survive the monotony, we have to make a conscious choice to improve ourselves each day. Take new routes to school or work. Explore different options within our fields, our studies. Instead of eating lunch at our desks or in the cafeteria, eat somewhere new. Cultivate relationships with colleagues and classmates that excite and surprise us.

We should leave work at work, and return home to embrace the freedom that our personal lives bring. We shouldn't succumb to the couch and the allure of Netflix. Instead, we should invest time in that new hobby we've been putting off. Fix that leaky faucet. Plan a trip to a new city, or take the time to experience the nuances of own cities. Reach out to friends - old and new - and make an effort to cultivate those relationships. Spend quality technology-free time with family. Focus on each other. Appreciate the subtleties of life.

There is freedom in monotony. We just have to have just enough spontaneity to discover and appreciate the freedom. According to the "Prince of Paradox," Gilbert Chesterton, monotony "has nothing to do with a place; [it] is simply the quality of a person. There are no dreary sights; there are only dreary sight seers" (Alarms and Discursions). If we feel the confines of tedium closing in, we need to change our points of view. Emerging from the cubicles of monotony can help us reinvigorate our experience so we can thrive throughout our lives. 

Escape Narcissism

Let us emerge from our self-imposed cages.

Lately, I've been cleaning up my digital photos. The goal is to eliminate redundancies and bad photos, the latter of which are determined by small file size, low resolution, improper camera angles, and meaningless or confusing content.

As I began dredging my pictures, I noted a dominating presence of selfies. After a brief period of shock, self-loathing, followed by grim acknowledgement, I collected them all in a folder, labeled creatively, "Ali Selfies." In counting them, I found more than 1000! Why so many? What spurred this dramatic increase in documenting my face? I traced them back to their relative year of inception, 2004. The year I got the Motorola Razr camera phone. The year my first serious relationship ended. And the year I joined Facebook.  

At that time, Facebook was only available for college students. I was senior at the University of San Diego, and I worked as the Features Editor of The Vista. One day at the office, someone broached the topic of "another MySpace," and we editors became extremely intrigued. We were already frolicking on MySpace and AOL instant messenger, but we were thrilled at the prospect of yet another method to commune with our fellow undergrads. After signing up, we spent the afternoon poking each other and crafting witty status updates. We sent friend requests to our roommates, our boyfriends, our girlfriends. We wanted to "friend" everyone we had ever come into contact with. Facebook would feed our desperation for social interaction beyond university walls. Little did we know Facebook would prey on our insecurities and assist in our evolution as narcissists. 

Narcissism is defined as a "tendency to believe one’s self to be superior to others', to persistently pursue admiration from others, and to participate in egotistic thinking and behavior" (Panek, Nardis & Konrath, 2013). Numerous studies show a strong correlation between insecure, narcissistic tendencies and social media use. There's a very good chance that people who post self-promotional content, and those who spend more than one hour a day on Facebook or other social networks have issues with their self esteem. There's also a good chance that those who practice the art of the "selfie" or utilize social media (barring business purposes) are feeding into their own insecurities, producing narcissistic tendencies.

For individuals such as myself, aged 18-40 (the Millennial and Zennial Generations), taking selfies and using social media platforms may seem to be integral parts of life. We have an inherent need for attention, since we are products of the self esteem movement, emphasized by parental hovering, instant gratification, and meaningless praise. Social media feeds the need for instant rewards: it both creates and rewards narcissistic tendencies by providing an endless outlet for self-promotion. Once we acknowledge this generational trend, we can be aware of its manifestation in our actions, and make our acumen for social media into something useful, instead of something detrimental.

Before joining Facebook, I already had a rich (albeit detrimental) digital life on MySpace. I carefully curated photo albums of my travels, and posted highly Photoshopped profile pictures. I took advantage of the embedded music player and chose what I thought were unique songs on a rotating basis. One month David Bowie's Modern Love might play upon entering, the next month would be Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith, after that, perhaps some hip hop featuring members of Hieroglyphics.  I included something about how I only watch Coen Brothers films even though if you asked me what films they made, I could only name "The Big Lebowski."

By using both Myspace and Facebook, my self esteem rose and fell with each font change, each message, and each new connection. I hid behind the curtain of digital interaction. I thought that everyone would be interested in what I was doing, and I wanted them to know what I was doing. This was the essence of self-promotion for its own sake. Once I grew more aware of the reasons behind my digital habits, I became disgusted with myself. I quit MySpace in 2007. I quit Facebook shortly after. 

During my years of disconnection, I reconnected with myself. I got a dog and, through his companionship, I rekindled a genuine appreciation for solitude and nature. I went on long walks through forested trails without posting to social media. Instead of checking Facebook when I was bored, I put more time into planning events with friends and family, and into conversing in real time, sans device, with those around me. I put my time and energy into my Education Master's program where I received a near 4.0. I experienced entire albums on vinyl while exploring the not-so-secret world of craft beer. I began handwriting letters again. I resumed reflecting on my own life instead the lives of others.

It is 2016, and I have since rejoined Facebook. But, now I use it with awareness and moderation.  I try not to use my device as a distraction, even though this can be difficult at times. I've turned off all notifications, and only "like" or post something when I think the information is truly useful to at least a few of my connections. I am aware when I enter "social media loops" from which it is difficult to emerge. Through my trial, and my error, I have come to understand the true essence and purpose of Facebook: under the guise of "connecting with friends," Facebook only exists as a means to promote ourselves to others.

Some psychologists are calling the resulting self-promotional phenomenon "The New [socially acceptable] Narcissism." However, I don't think that narcissism should be a social normative in our society.  Extreme self-involvement should never be OK, and people should not abuse themselves as such on social media. Instead, we should be aware of the reasons we picking up our devices and losing ourselves to social media. We should know why we feel like seeking attention from others online. Above all, we need to acknowledge our offline loneliness, and overcome our fears of isolation and rejection. When we come to terms with our social needs, we can get to the heart of our insecurities, thereby emerging from our narcissistic cages.

 

Reflect

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." - Soren Kierkegaard*

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I took this photo in 2009 while on a family vacation in British Columbia. We had been out all day, searching for humpback and fin whales: both had been seen migrating south for the winter. On our cruise back to the hotel, I caught my brother gazing back at the wake of the boat, losing himself in the ripples of the ocean. Maybe he was thinking about his career, what he would choose for dinner, or where the whales actually were - since we didn't see any that day. I didn't disturb him to find out. I could tell he was in a state of reflection.

Reflection is something that is overlooked in daily life. Unless we are relatively alone, on the ocean, staring into the blameless blue ripples of our seafaring vessel, we find it difficult and perhaps pointless to contemplate our actions. Why waste valuable time to essentially daydream when we have so many tasks that already occupy our time, and they only seem to increase as we get older?

Caught up in the daily "everything," we usually forget to listen to ourselves. Of utmost importance is slowing down and being with ourselves. It's good to pick the same time each day - I do this before I go to bed - to drift off into thought, and rethink actions and choices. Instead of merely thinking, you can choose to write in a journal, go outside, be in nature, or visit an art gallery. Art and nature are both very effective triggers for reflection, just so long as you are in quiet, contemplative solitude.

Questions to consider while reflecting: How am I feeling right now? What contributes to my happiness today? What am I excited about? What am I grateful for?

The benefits of reflection are boundless, since daydreaming and solitude have been meaningfully linked to increased mindfulness and creativity. Nicola Tesla - engineer, physicist and futurist - attested to this, saying "The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind." Faisal Hoque, author of Survive to Thrive, supports Tesla's claims about solitary reflection when he writes about the success of leaders and entrepreneurs, and how they are more able to "experience critical awakenings during self-imposed solitude."

Whether you are an entrepreneur, a physicist, or a blogger, your personal growth is born from reflection. If you make time to be alone and think about yourself, even 10 minutes each day, reflection can give you the courage to see the world differently, to see your life differently, and to commit to making the changes that you need to be happy. As the wise philosopher Kierkegaard* once said, even though life must be lived forward, it "can only be understood backwards."