The Bell, The Silence, And The Hour That Never Was

bell

I just got back from my first meditation retreat, at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center. If you’re not familiar with meditation retreats, they are an experience where you go to a secluded place for a while–in this case 3 days–and spend the entire time meditating. With no talking, no electronics, no reading or writing material of any kind. Just you, and yourself, for 15 hours a day.

I’ve wanted to do this for a while, because the science shows that the lifetime benefits of continued meditation practice are even more correlated to time spent on retreat than they are with daily practice. Also other reasons, but mostly science.

The experience was many things. Amazing, bizarre, challenging, effortless. It was too short, and also I couldn’t wait to come home. I plan on scheduling a longer retreat as soon as I can, and also I don’t know why I anyone would do this to themselves. It’s hard to describe what the retreat was like in a substantive way. This kind of thing is extraordinarily experiential. More than almost anything else a person can do, I think. Because all of the practical details are just there to make room for the more rarefied stuff.

I could describe the tangible features of the experience, and I plan to do that in a subsequent post. But I had a specific experience while I was there that captures the surreal feeling of the whole endeavor. It involves a bell.

I pulled into the parking lot at Cloud Mountain, and my chest was full of that feeling that includes discomfort, excitement, and the almost-comfortable confusion that comes when you’re in an unfamiliar environment and you have a rock-solid excuse to not know what the hell you’re doing. I followed various signs to drop off my things, I wandered aimlessly for a bit, and finally I found the registration room. Which was also the dining hall.

I entered a door to find several tables full of women and various forms. They were very friendly, and each one walked me through their part of the process, told me what I needed to fill out and what I need to know, and then passed me onto the next woman. I got my room assignment, signed up for my “working meditation” (which means the chore I had to do; I chose chopping vegetables over any of the cleaning tasks, because duh), and got a map of the grounds. There was a building called “Mist Haven.” I was instantly enchanted.

The last woman, Diane, helped me with my chore assignment, then passed me a slip of paper with various times on it and slots next to the times. Most of the slots had a person’s name written in. I looked down at the paper, then up at the Diane.

“There are a few times here for bell ringer,” she said. Then she stared at me. I expected her to keep talking, but she didn’t. Apparently she thought that sentence she just said was somehow a complete explanation.

“What does that entail?” I asked, after what I’m fairly confident was 25 minutes of awkward silence.

“It’s to ring the bell to call people to meetings,” she said. “Here are the times available.”

Almost all of them were filled. The only open slots were 6:20 AM, and 6:00 AM. Next to 6 it said “Wake up bell.”

I laughed. “I guess no one wanted to do the morning.” I started to fill out the 6:20 slot.

“Yeah, no one wants to do the early morning,” said Diane.

I paused. I was here. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it. I filled out the 6:00 AM slot.

“There’s a training this evening after dinner,” Diane told me. “You meet up at the big temple bell and they’ll show you how to do it.”

“Actually, the wake up is a hand bell,” said another woman. “You take the bell and walk around.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“Yes. The bell is in Diamond Hall, on top of the shoe rack? And the instructions are there. You can take the bell and the instructions to your room. Feel free to come back here and ask us if you have any questions. And thank you so much for volunteering to do this.

She really emphasized the “so much.” As in, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” What the hell had I gotten myself into?

“No problem,” I said.

I found the bell easily enough. It was a small hand bell, the kind someone might walk around ringing in Victorian London to let people know about an upcoming event. Which made sense. I also found the instructions. They managed to fit them all on one page.

I took them back to my room and read the card over and over. My job, it turned out, was to wake up before everyone else, then tour the entire grounds, walk into each of the residential buildings, and ring the bell outside of everyone’s rooms in an attempt to wrest them aggressively from their peaceful repose. Hopefully, no one brought any rotten fruit to throw. Or if they did, I’d be able to run away quickly enough.

The instructions also had a suggested route, and most of the buildings listed in the instructions were on the map. Most of them. I had to find out about the other ones. Also, I had no idea how long this would take, so I had to do a practice run. Anything I had questions about I had to figure out before this evening, because that’s when the silence began.

I need to explain about the silence. This retreat, like most of them, is held in Noble Silence. That’s a translation of what I assume is a much cooler word in Pali or Sanskrit. The way that vipassana is more beautiful than “insight.” Or saying that the first Noble Truth is Buddhism is “life is dukkha” is much more nuanced and interesting than the usual translation, “life is suffering,” which just makes the Buddha sound super emo.

In practical terms, it means that no one talks for the entire retreat. The teacher talks to give lessons, but the practitioners do not unless it’s completely necessary. I was looking forward to the silence and it did not sound difficult, despite how hilarious the idea of me not talking for 3 days probably sound to my friends. But I will admit that I thought that the silence was an incidental feature of the retreat. Like the vegetarian menu and the Buddha statues, something that is part of the spiritual tradition but not vital to the mechanics of the meditation practice itself. I was completely wrong.

The teacher explained on the first day that the silence is the most important support structure built into the retreat to assist in the practice. This is because–and these are my own words based on her explanation–the silence makes it so the retreat is not a social activity. It’s a group activity. Normally those are the same thing because humans are so social. And we can still be sociable in silence. But Noble Silence takes away the social element.

Let me explain. Normally in a group, we put a lot of time and effort into other people. Into the way we come off, into following social norms, into assisting others or definite our relationships to them. Silence takes all of that away, or at least most of it.

Here is an example. When we sat down the next morning, and the teacher sat in front of us, she looked out and said, “Good morning.” This is common for the start of a class. Normally, when a teacher says that, there is an expectation of response, and that creates a host of complexities. Maybe you don’t want to respond because you’re tired but you feel obligated to anyway. There might be some resentment there. Maybe the class half-half-heartedly responds, and you feel sorry for the teacher.

Also, is that an indication that this is going to be a low-energy group? Is the teacher about to be one of those people who says, “I can’t hear you!” and then everyone has to shout? Is that the miniature hell we’re about to be subjected to? But with silence, there is absolutely no expectation of a response, from you or anyone else. She says good morning, and that is as far as it goes. You can respond how you will on the inside, but that’s as far as it goes. It is yours and yours alone, and you owe nothing to anyone but yourself. Noble Silence is very, very important.

It also meant that anything I needed to ask, I needed to do it before the silence. So I did that, and I felt reasonably confident. After the evening practice, I went to my room, set my little digital clock, and tried to go to sleep. It didn’t work. I knew this would be my biggest struggle.

I felt coming in that I could meditate and do nothing else for 15 hours a day, but fall asleep without an audio book or a TV show to listen to, the way a normal person does? What do I look like, Spider-man? Oh…really? Well, thank you, that is a very flattering and justified comparison, but I assure you, I’m only a man. Specifically, a man with ADD who hasn’t fallen asleep without the aid of electronic narrative for something like 19 years. Not once. I’ve tried it a few times. A few nights of sleeplessness and misery.

But I had no choice. I did fall asleep at about 9:30, almost immediately. For 20 minutes. Then I woke up with the energy of a toddler whose DNA was spliced with that of a ferret. I tried to go back to sleep. I went for a walk in the dark, I went to the dining cabin and had some toast and peppermint tea. I lay in bed for an hour. Then another. During the third hour I tried to run through the soundtrack of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer musical episode in my head, but it made me too depressed. Then I tried Steven Universe songs, which was better, but I got stuck after Strong In The Real Way I couldn’t remember what came next. I felt grateful that I hadn’t bought a phone charger. If I had, I might have plugged my phone in and cheated my way to the ecstasy of unconsciousness.

I did, eventually, fall asleep some hours later. I woke up every hour after that. Finally, my alarm went off. Most people at the retreat didn’t need to set an alarm. But I did, because of that damn bell. I woke up and immediately turned off the alarm so I wouldn’t disturb my neighbors. I got a single room–one of few–but the walls were thin. I looked over at the clock.

5:45

This was it. Time to get up. Time to walk outside in the dark, head towards every other person’s room, and clang my bell outside their door. I walked to the window and opened the blinds. It was black outside. There were some lights on, but nothing like what I was used to in a city. There was nothing to indicate that it wasn’t still the middle of the night. Nothing at all. I looked back at the clock.

5:46

All I had to go by was that tiny digital clock. The one my wife dug out of some recess in the archaeological dig site that is our house. The clock that probably dated from the Carter administration, and might well be full of vacuum tubes. What the hell was I thinking? I couldn’t clang people awake solely on the word of this thing. It didn’t ping any cell towers. It wasn’t verifying the time with any cesium-based atomic clock in Virginia. No, I couldn’t trust it. So I did what I had to do. I turned on my phone.

It had power, but I didn’t want it to die before the end of the trip. I also didn’t want to check my email, or even know if I had any text messages. I would just power it on, look at the time, then shut it off. I waited as the Samsung logo lit into being. Hopefully no one would be able to hear it. That would be embarrassing. I watched, and I waited, and finally it came on and I saw the time.

4:47

I paused. That couldn’t be right. I looked again.

4:47

I looked back at my digital clock.

5:47

What the hell was happening? I looked at the cell phone again. Its answer didn’t change. I knew that my clock had been right the previous evening. Had I changed it unknowingly in the night? I took a deep breath. I was exhausted, in an unfamiliar environment, and I could barely think straight. What was going on here.

Then it struck me. Was this a Daylight Savings Time thing? Was last night Daylight Savings Time? I never know when it is. It was fall. The end of September. That could have been daylight savings, right? God damn that stupid phenomenon! No one ever knows when it is, so it’s distinctly possible it passed me by. Maybe everyone else knew and didn’t think to mention it? Or, no, everyone always seems to realize it just before bed time. So maybe it occurred to people, but they couldn’t spread the word because we were already in Silence. Dammit, was that it?

Not for the first time, it occurred to me that this retreat would be a fantastic setting for a slasher movie. The twisted paths through the old forests. The patches of light at night that created tiny islands of illumination amidst the pervasive darkness. It could see it now.

The killer would roam the grounds, murdering meditators and covering them in foliage and prayer beads in a sick imitation of the local shrines. Revenge, no doubt, for his apparent death when he attended the center years ago, due to a prank involving a Buddha statue and a vat of overcooked millet. A prank that went horribly, horribly wrong. Only in the version of the movie that occurs to me right now, none of the victims scream as they’re being murdered, and no one who finds the bodies tells anyone. None of them want to disrespect the Noble Silence.

Then I realized that I was holding my smartphone in my hand, and I could look up when daylight savings time occurred in two seconds. So I did. It’s happening in November. I looked back at my clock. It would have been very easy to set the time an hour forward during the night. It took one button press. I turned off my phone. Apparently I had another hour before I needed to get up.

Jesus Christ. I had come very close to wandering every residential hall and ringing my damn bell an hour earlier than I was supposed to. What would have happened? Would everyone have showed up to the morning sit an hour early? They would have been confused. But these people took the silence seriously. Would they have discussed it? That would have been a disaster. Enough so that I still didn’t trust my sources. I had an hour to kill and a 0% chance of falling back asleep. I decided to walk to the dining hall and check. They had a clock. It confirmed what I phone told me.

So an hour later, I gathered my bell, and set off on my route. It felt very weird. Darkness still blanketed the sky. Dawn hadn’t yet arrived. It didn’t feel like 6 o’clock, whatever that means.

I trudged up the paths towards the first hall, climbed the stairs, and walked through the door. It was black. I’d seen people in this hall and in these rooms the day before, but now there was no evidence anyone was awake. No evidence anyone had ever been there. I’d hoped someone would be around, or their light would be on. No such luck. So I took a breath, and did my job.

It went fine after that, although it didn’t stop feeling strange. I walked all around, ringing my bell outside of everyone’s door. I tried to hold it with the bell upright at first, and it didn’t sound right. Eventually, I figured out I should grip it handle-up, like a dinner bell. I ran into someone coming out of their hall a little later. That made me feel better.

I got back to my room and checked the time on my clock.

6:06

The whole thing had taken be six minutes. Well, I wanted to be fast. Wake up time was supposed to be 6, not 6:15, after all. Still, part of me didn’t trust my assessment of the time. So I lay there, in nervous silence. Until the temple bell resounded throughout the grounds. It was supposed to happen at 6:20. The ringer was a little late. They rang the bell at 6:22. Amateurs.

Later on, I sat down on my cushion to meditate with everyone else. As strange as that experience had been, it wasn’t until that moment that it fully struck me how bizarre it was. Because I couldn’t do, right then, what I would normally do in a situation like this.

I couldn’t tell anyone. These people had very nearly had a strange, confusing, and likely unsettling morning. It might have disrupted the tone for the entire retreat. Maybe some of them, already anxious from the challenges of the retreat itself, would have go into full blown panic and never recovered because the reliable routine had lost all trust and descended into chaos. That had almost happened. I had almost done that.

And none of them, not a single person to whom it was relevant, would ever know. It wouldn’t be a funny story I could share. A way to bond, a way to mark myself in their memory. Those are my tricks. That’s what I do. But not this time. This experience, what was, what could have happened, and what would never be, they were for me alone.

On the third day of the retreat, a fog descended onto Cloud Mountain, and shrouded the entire grounds in mist. On the walk back to my room after breakfast, I looked up, and the sight took the breath from my lungs.

The trees–towering maples and even taller Douglas firs–stretched into the sky. The kind of moss that only grows in old forests clung to their branches, and billows of mist clung to the moss, as if it, too, was growing out of the wood. Rain pattered down, but the forest canopy let none of it through. That water belonged to the trees, and they chose not to share. It was the world, singing softly to the earth, as I stood upon it.

I wanted to stop the other people as they walk by, and tell them how beautiful I thought it was. I wanted to do this so I could share it with them, because maybe they hadn’t noticed. I wanted to do this so they could know how beauty affects me. I wanted to do this just to express what I felt to another. Maybe I had all of these reasons, or none of them.

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t and so it didn’t matter. In that moment, I felt connected to the world, but at the same time, all that mattered was inside of me. The entire world was inside of me, and I was inside of it. Just like the morning bell and the hour that never was, this, too, belonged to me.

And to me alone.

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On The Shoulders of Giant Idiots

Dunce

At Bellevue, the “internes” ran about in corridors with “pus-pails,” the bodily drippings of patients spilling out of them. Surgical sutures were made of catgut, sharpened with spit, and left to hang from incisions into the open air. Surgeons walked around with their scalpels dangling from their pockets. If a tool fell on the blood-soiled floor, it was dusted off and inserted back into the pocket—or into the body of the patient on the operating table.
–from The Emperor of All Maladies, pg 153, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, describing the operation of hospitals in the 1850s

Take a moment and think about your reaction to the above quote. I’m sure you’ve run into something like it before. In this case it’s about medicine, but you can find similar descriptions regarding every field of human endeavor. The world’s top astronomers used to believe the Earth was the center of the universe and the planets whirled around us in dozens of layers of increasingly complex epicycles. The world’s top biologists used to believe flies arose spontaneously from rotten meat through a process called abiogenesis.

Even the genuine geniuses of the past aren’t immune. Aristotle–who aside from being an important philosopher was the great granddaddy of science–believed that earthquakes were caused by underground wind, analogous to the rumblings in the human gut that produce internal wind of their own. Isaac Newton spent almost all of his working life trying to predict the apocalypse and divine the location of the Temple of Solomon using cryptographic puzzles hidden in the text of the Hebrew bible, and only with the remaining bit left managed to squeeze in the invention of optics, orbital mechanics, and pretty much the rest of physics.

If you made of list of important scientists and thinkers of history and scratched off everyone who believed in phrenology, seances, and that thing that blew tobacco smoke up someone’s ass in order to resuscitate drowning victims, you’d pretty much be left with just Galileo. Stephen Hawking said in 2016 that, “We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.” It’s hard to look at the history of human thought and not think that he’s right.

Most books and documentaries about the history of science and medicine weave this narrative thoroughly into their accounts. Most important developments in science, they tell us, were achieved by mavericks who defied conventional wisdom and proposed fringe theories that were scorned by the supposed experts until experimentation and history proved our heroes right. Joseph Lister’s carbolic acid to disinfect wounds. Albert Einstein’s dismissal of luminiferous aether, and also the prevailing notion that time actually existed and made any damn sense at all. Hell, the guy who invented the 3 point seat belt had a hell of a time getting it widely adapted.

So why is that? Why were the people in the past–leaders in their respective field–such idiots? Why have the experts never listened to the pioneering geniuses who were clearly right and much more intelligent than them? It’s hard to answer those questions, but one thing is clear: We can all be incredibly thankful that we’re all much smarter than that now, and we no longer make those kinds of mistakes.

Right. Definitely.

The fact is, people in the past weren’t stupid. At least, they weren’t any stupider than we are. They weren’t really any more ignorant, either. Or rather, society as a whole was more ignorant by virtue of the fact that knowledge builds on itself and our modern sciences are built on the discoveries, lessons, and (most of all) mistakes of the past. But the individuals who thought that the stars were stuck to the far end of the sky or that hand-washing did absolutely nothing to prevent the transmission of disease weren’t ignorant. In fact, the very people we make fun of for being wrong were generally the most education and functionally intelligent members of their society.

What’s more than that, those maverick heroes that pushed science forward only to be mocked by their peers deserved to be mocked. Or at least, the people in charge weren’t wrong to be skeptical. The mavericks had fringe theories, and conventional wisdom is becomes conventional for a reason. Sometimes–much of the time–prevailing thought is wrong, even dangerously so. But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of scientific development isn’t done through breakthroughs. It’s done through tiny, minute iterations on the prevailing theories, and it can only be done if there is a strong prevailing theory in place.

Chances are, if we ran into the theories of Pasteur or Lister or Einstein today, most of us would initially dismiss them as cranks. Or at least irrelevant. That’s what we do with fringe theories. They’re fringe because most of our evidence for any given scientific theory exists in support of the currently dominant theory. Even when those theories have flaws–which, let’s face it, they basically all always do–they’re still important to the day-to-day work of science. It takes a long time for a new paradigm to take hold not just because the people in charge are stubborn, but because the overwhelming majority of newly proposed paradigms are wrong.

It is easy (and fun!) to smugly laugh at the dumbness of the past, but that attitude is not only ahistorical, it’s also dangerous. Smugness comes from a sense of superiority, and superiority comes from the hard and fast belief that you are right, and whoever you are feeling superior to is wrong. All of those doctors killing patients–particularly the ones who kept doing it even when better evidence try to–did it not out of idiocy. They did it out of smugness.

Yes, the stupid things that doctors and scientists of the past believed are hilarious and bewildering. It’s often hard to imagine how they could possibly have not known things that seem so obvious to us. I mean, they put fecal matter into their drinking water sources, for crying out loud. But the lesson that we should learn from it isn’t that they were stupid.

The lesson is that they were thoroughly trained, highly education, and in many cases legitimately brilliant, and they still got nearly everything wrong anyway.

What Our Worlds Teach Us

Circle

We become what the loom of time and causality around us weaves us into. We can only interact with the world that we can see, that we can touch, that can cut against both our flesh and our conceptions, and make them bleed. We develop the reactions, instincts, beliefs, and worldviews that this world demand, and we act accordingly. We do this because to do otherwise would make us useless, or worse, mad. We do this to survive. All of this applies full well to my call center job at the cell phone company. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft.

At the most basic level, any job we take or social circles we move in require not only their own rule of behavior and action to be successful, but also their own coping mechanisms. You either develop them or you don’t move very well in those worlds. They make for the weirdo stories that populate the pages of the internet that collect those kind of weirdo stories. All professions have their fair share, but customer service oriented fields seem to produce them with gusto. Likely because CS involves dealing with a lot of humans. And humans are, taken in mass, pretty special.

As you can imagine, being a CS rep for a cell phone company involves listening to a lot of complaints. Whatever the flavor, they require the same kind of mental toughness and framing skills to handle. A lot of the complaints are a legitimate. Those are tough, especially when we can’t help. Some of them are so wacky they are almost difficult to believe. Sometimes, those are tougher, even when it only takes five minutes of distance to realize that they are also hilarious. And sometimes it is difficult to tell which category they fall into. Like today, for example, when a woman told me that by doing my job, I was going to kill her baby.

“Can I have your first and last name please?”

“Nicole Jenkins,” she said. Obviously I’m making this up, partially to protect her identity and partially because I don’t remember. I could tell just from her name that she was tense. Something you learn how to do, if you stay in this kind of job too long.

“What can I help you with today Nicole?”

“I need to transfer my number, or else get my own fucking account.”

Terrific. Excellent start.

Her line was suspended, which means it wasn’t currently working. I also saw that she wasn’t an authorized user on the account, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. She couldn’t make changes, or get much information. I knew I had to tell her that, and I knew she would yell at me. But I also knew that I was protected from the consequences of her anger by that favorite shield of both corporate employees and war criminals the world over. I was just doing my job. It diffuses a surprising amount of tension. From my end. Not so much the customer’s.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but without seeing you as an authorized user, I can’t transfer the service. I would have to get authorization from the account manager. I can reach out to them, if you want.”

“It’s my fucking boyfriend,” she said, “and he removed me from the account.”

“Geez, that is really rough.”

“Yeah it’s fucking rough! Can I move my damn number? I want to transfer the service. I want to transfer the service to my own line. Under my name.”

“Ugh. I really wish I could do that for you,” I said, and I meant it. I think people can hear that in my voice, most of the time. Not so much this time. “But legally speaking the number is under his account and so you can’t remove it onto your own without his authorization.”

“This is a domestic violence situation!” she screamed. “There is a domestic violence order against him!”

“Oh geez,” I said again. “That’s awful. Listen, there might be a stipulation about that in our policy. I am so sorry about this, the whole thing sounds really awful. Let me put you on old for a minute and see what I can find. Is that okay?”

“Fine.”

I took a look. I didn’t find anything. I reached out for held to see if anyone else knew anything, even though by that point I was fairly certain that if there was some kind of exception to the rules, which there sometimes is for domestic violence, I would have found it. My support person confirmed this, but explained that we have other channels for this kind of situation. It was good advice.

“Hi, Nicole?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you so much for holding, I’ve looked into to this to try to see what we can do. I can’t do the transfer from my end, because like I said from our end the line legally belongs to him. But we do know that awful stuff like this happens, and we have a team that works with law enforcement in situations like this. You’re going to have to go through the police or through your legal representation, and they can contact our team and see how we get this done for you.”

“I need my phone working!” she said. “I have an eight month old baby! I need my phone!”

“I really, really feel for you here,” I said. And I did.

“Fine!” she shrieked. “If my baby dies tonight, that’s on you!” She hung up. If phones could still slam, she would have slammed it.

I was shaken. I don’t know why not having a phone would kill her baby, but getting accused of infanticide is not the highlight of my day. I took myself out of available status and sat there trying to collect myself.

In that moment, just before she hung up, if I could have bypassed the rules for her, I would have. Which is exactly why they don’t let me do things like that. I had no way of verifying her story or even her identity, and scammers and identity thieves know that suckers like me work in customer service.

I told myself this, and I started to feel better. I told the story to some of my coworkers, and they agreed I’d done the right thing and the woman was being unreasonable, even if she was telling the truth. What else was I supposed to do?
And that’s all true, but this isn’t about policy. It’s not about whether or not I did the right thing or if I could have done anything else. It’s about how very easy it was for me to recover. It’s about all of the support and mechanism the world I work in gives me to move past even a situation like a woman accusing me of murdering her child. It is easier for me now than it would have been a few months ago. I imagine it will only get easier. Just ten minutes after that call, my main worry was that she would fail me on a customer satisfaction survey. But it was a minor worry. If she did, I could probably get it thrown out.

Do You Have a Calling? Should You Actually Want One?

Confused

Another 37, Day 31

It’s hard to swing a sack full of existential dilemmas without hitting a book about finding your Calling in life. Or a website. Or someone who approaches you in the mall and asks if you have found a life coach. It is not hard to understand why this is such a pervasive and lucrative industry. Most of us have a vague feeling that our lives are not what we want them to be, and that we could do better and achieve sublime happiness if we just knew how.

It’s possible that this sense of unfulfillment is worse in our era of abundance and individualism than it has ever been, but it’s been with humanity at least as long as we’ve been writing things down. A wide variety of solutions have been proposed over the millennia. In ancient India, the solution was to meditate enough so that you achieve enlightenment and won’t have to worry about it the next time around. In ancient Rome, it was to man up and deal with it—or, if it got bad enough, to fall on your sword. In medieval Europe, it was to be a good and obedient enough person to be rewarded in the afterlife where they don’t have these kinds of problems. If these sound like oversimplifications, it’s because:

  1. They are, and
  2. This problem is so deep, so complicated, and so pervasive that any solution will always been an oversimplification.

In the modern Western world, some of us still follow these solutions. But more and more our culture is pervaded by the sense that the way to get out of what the Buddha called dukkha—a word often translated as “suffering” but which literally means something closer to “the fact that life just kind of sucks no matter what you do”–is to find your Calling. Your Purpose. That perfect job or art or volunteer work that you are Supposed To Do, and that will therefore lead to USC—Ultimate Satisfaction and Contentment.

But does this really work? Is it possible to find your Calling? What’s more, would you even want to? The very concept of the Calling is problematic. Not because it isn’t a beautiful idea. On the purpose if it finding your purpose in life sounds fantastic. But when explored more deeply it is a difficult and flawed idea, with some unsettling implications. How can it not be? It’s a blend of two worldviews, both of which are very popular in our society, which really don’t work together. I call these two views the Great CEO in the Sky and the Existential Entrepreneur.

The Great CEO in the Sky is evolved from Christianity, but it is a very modern version of it. The idea is that God has a Purpose for you. A job for you to do during your time in this world. God is kind of like your boss. Only He’s everyone’s boss, the CEO and founder of the entire company. But He is a very hands on kind of CEO. He takes a personal interest in every single employee, and since he build the whole organization and knows everything about everything that goes on within in, He has designed the perfect job for you and you alone, and structured the organization such that you and everyone else are exactly where you need to be, and all of our positions intermingle into a perfect synchronous whole.

It might sound like this doesn’t leave much room for free will, but the Great CEO doesn’t require that you do your job. He’s not going to fire you, or anything, and you’ll continue to get your paycheck in the form of the continued ability to breathe. But you won’t be happy. The only way to achieve true happiness is to figure out what God wants you to do. It’s not always obvious—our CEO moves in mysterious board rooms. But He leaves hints. Sometimes he puts obstacles in your way, because why else have a flawed material existence at all if there aren’t going to be challenges? But it’s okay. The job He’s got for you is perfectly designed for your exact character and life, and He’s always closing doors and opening windows, so you’ll never get stuck for very long.

The Existential Entrepreneur view is evolved from the existentialist philosophy of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. In this view there either isn’t a god at all, or else He’s out there but he doesn’t get involved. He set the whole thing up and gave us brains and muscles, but now He lets us do what we want because he is a staunch believer in Adam Smith and the free market economy. In this viewpoint there is no intrinsic meaning to life. You don’t have any prescribed Purpose. You just have skills and capabilities and a world to explore and make your way in. Like Minecraft. Only you are compelled to play all of the time, whether or not you are having a good time. Like Minecraft.

This might sound like a depressing worldview, but they way they get around that is much the same way that Libertarians get around the idea that a cut-throat free market driven by self interest is depressing. Without the Divine Federal Government setting regulations and zoning restrictions and telling you what to do, you can do whatever you want. You are left to find your own path, and what’s more, to choose your own path. No one designed you to be a baker or a fighter pilot or the world’s hairiest UFC fighter. If any of those appeal to you, go for it. The purpose of your life is whatever you want to be. If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do. The fact that this is a quote from Angel doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Both of these worldviews have their good points and their bad points. In Great CEO, you have the comfort of having a flawless and completely fulfilling plan all laid out for you. But at the same time you never really had a choice. Sure you could not follow the plan, but that’s going to be a crappy boss, and it risks angering the boss. What the hell kind of choice is that? In Existential Entrepreneur, you have choices and you get to decide your own destiny. But deep down, you have to accept that nothing really matters. Sure it’s great for people for whom it works out. But what if you suffer from depression? What if your house burns down? There is no one looking out for you, and no guarantee that things aren’t just going to keep getting worse. Plus, you kind of have to accept the fact that some people do and always will just have it better than others.

The idea of the Calling tries to solve all of these problems by squish the dough of both of these worldviews together and baking it into a single cookie that has the advantages of each of them and the disadvantages of neither. The Calling worldview sometimes features a God, but sometimes it replaces it with “the universe.” In this view, you have a purpose, but there is nothing deterministic about it. It’s not part of a Grand Design in some kind of divine business plan kind of way. It’s more that there is something that you are perfect for. Something that, once you find it, will bring you ultimate fulfillment. This is true for everyone, just by virtue of being human. Unlike in the other two worldviews, there is no explanation as to why this should be the case. It just is, because…wouldn’t it be nice? Doesn’t it make sense?

The answer is no. To go back to the free market metaphor, this would be like saying that it’s inevitable that there is some kind of perfect business for everyone in which they are guaranteed to succeed. That everyone has inside of them an ideal product or service or marketing technique, and all you need to do is find it and it’ll explode onto the scene and make you a billionaire. And indeed, plenty of Calling books are geared towards would-be entrepreneurs, and make exactly this argument with fancier words.

But it doesn’t work that way. There is no reason to think that it’s inevitable that you’ll find perfect fulfillment just by doing the right thing. But the unrealism of this approach is only the beginning. It can also be dangerous. Much like the idea that everyone has a Soul Mate, and that once we set eyes on this perfect the world will erupt into a chorus of bright stars and symphony music and we will be happy for the rest of our lives. The Calling theory suggests that once you find your Thing, you are all set. You get that fantastic job in your dream profession, and you’ll be satisfied and full of joy for all of your days. But what if you and your Soul Mate start fighting? Or what if your dream job starts to pale after a few years and you get fed up with the more tedious aspects? The only option in this worldview is to say, “Oh, well, I guess he wasn’t really my Soul Mate. I guess I wasn’t really supposed to be the manager of a Twinkie Factory. I guess I’ll ditch this path and start over. Next time, it’s gonna be great!”

Life doesn’t work that way. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s great, and there probably really are jobs or arts or people who will make you happy. Go for them! They are worth pursuing! But once you decide they are The One, once you decide you have found your One And Only Purpose In Life for All Time, you’ve set yourself up for disappointment. What’s worse, you’ve locked yourself in. You might stay in a relationship or a job for far too long, because once you make something part of your identity it is very, very difficult to tell when it’s time to move on. If the idea of finding your Calling motivations you to do great things, then by all means continue to read those books. Models can be useful, even when they aren’t true. But just recognize that a model is all it is, and that you shouldn’t cling to it too tightly.

It’s Not My Fault! Seriously!

Milk Factory Boss

There have been a lot of surveys of career and job satisfaction done over the years by both social scientists and marketing companies. It’s an easy thing to fund, because it lets executives quantitatively examine the productivity of their underlings as if they are the mechanical parts of a vending machine while at the same time pretending to care about them.

The data is messy and variable—that’s how SS rolls—but there are some surprising and useful trends. One of the big ones is that when asked “what do you want more of,” the almighty dollar usually comes in at number 2. A huge blow to its ego, I’m sure, but at least it can afford therapy. The number one slot on what people want more of in at work is recognition. Validation. Reward for their efforts and their successes, not in the form of a company Mercedes, but in the form of the boss saying, “Damn, Susan, you rocked the Peterson v Anderson brief! I’d hate to be Anderson’s family right about now!”

(Side note: a disproportionate number of people interviewed in these studies is named Susan. The social sciences have a serious Susan problem.)

As humans we crave validation the way pandas crave artisinal bamboo. Being told we’re a Good Boy worked in our previous incarnation when we were all dogs, and it still works on us today. Most people can remember a job, or a project or phase within a job if they’re less lucky, that was more satisfying than usual simply because they felt we got the recognition they deserved.

To some extent, managers and supervisors understand this. It’s obvious, right? Most positions have some kind of performance metrics that are rewarded or punished accordingly. Hell, a lot of industries base their entire employment model on this principle. So why is it that so many people, even within the fields that give out the most bonuses and commissions, are so unsatisfied with their jobs?

There are a lot of reasons, including the fact that the carrot and stick model is demonstrably a terrible way to motivate people to effectively perform complex tasks. But there’s another one that doesn’t get as much attention, and causes many of these schemes to produce exactly the opposite effect they are intended to.

It is this: a great many structures designed to measure and recognize performance have a hilariously low correlation to actual performance. A lot of people out there, from vacuum salesmen to CEOs, are getting rewarded for accomplishments that they didn’t really achieve, or punished for failures that are only sort of their fault.

In his excellent book Misbehaving, behavioral economist Richard Thaler describes a consulting gig he did at a high powered company. In the room was the CEO and 22 top executives. He proposed the following hypothetical to the execs: Let’s say you have a potential project you could undertake, and it has a 50% chance of success and a 50% chance of failure. If it succeeds, the company makes 2 million dollars. If it fails, the company loses one million dollars. In economics terms this project has an “expected value” of 1 million dollars. That is, the average amount you are likely to gain if you undertake this project is a million dollars. On any given go you could win or lose, but if you did it enough time one million dollars would be the average. He asked the execs if they would undertake this project. Only three of them said that yes, they would. The others said it would be too risky.

Thaler then turned to the CEO and asked him if he would sign off on 22 projects like this. That is to say, 22 projects run by his executives that would collectively early the company, on average, 11 million dollars.
“Of course,” said the CEO. “That’s a no brainer.”

“But you won’t get 22 of these projects,” said Thaler. “You’ll only get 3.” Because indeed only three of the execs said they would take the project on. Thaler turned to one of the people who said they wouldn’t undertake the project and asked why.

“If it makes money, I get a pat on the back, and maybe a bonus worth three months salary,” said the executive. “If it fails I might very well get fired. I like my job. I’m not willing to risk it for three months salary.”

It’s pretty clear that the fault here does not lie with the executives for being unwilling to take the risk. It lies with the CEO, who wants the risk in aggregate but is doing a terrible making his employees want to take it. But it raises another, more fundamental question. Let’s say all 22 projects go through, and some people get bonuses and some people get canned. You might think that’s good strategy. After all, it separates the wheat from the chaff, right? The good executives who made the project work get to stay on, and the bad ones are shown the door.

Maybe not. In the real world, it’s often very, very difficult to tell how much of these kinds of achievements are down to individual skill and merit and how much they are down to chance. We usually assume that people who succeed are good at what they do and people who fail are bad at it. We are a lot less likely to assume this about ourselves.

The hesitancy of these executives in taking the projects suggests that they feel this in their bones. No matter how smart or talented they are, no matter how hard working, they won’t necessarily be able to pull off a win on the project. Someone who had a completely merit-based worldview would assume that they would be in the 50 percent who made the 2 million. Maybe three of them had that kind of confidence. The others know that sometimes, the souffle is going to collapse no matter how carefully you folded in the egg whites.

On a much smaller scale, the morale at my current job is generally fairly low. There are a lot of reasons for this, but more and more I think the low-correlation effect is a big one. We have stats that track a wide variety of metrics. There are about 12 that matter, and each of them is broken down into another dozen or so sub-metrics. Our stats determine how much money we make, our prospects for promotion, and how well we are regarded by our supervisors. Having low stats is depressing.

When our stats as a site are low there are a lot of messages from management about how we need to get this done, how big a deal it is, how badly we are collectively doing. None of it is particularly harsh or punitive, but it is always there, buzzing in the background. Management tries their best to counter the effect of these messages by buying us pizza and giving out prizes and having funny hat day. But none of that addresses the fundamental problem: many of these stats are out of our hands.

Not completely, of course. And before I’m accused of making excuses for my own performance I should say that right now my stats are very good. I had a slump for a while, but even when I did they were still pretty good for the site. So this isn’t about me. At the same time, I’ve been in a situation where individual metrics spiked in the wrong direction purely because of luck. I got a lot of the wrong sorts of calls within a few days of each other, and my stats plummeted.

When I ask my supervisors about this, they always tell me the same thing. “Just do your best on those calls. You won’t get in trouble for a bad result as long as you handled it well and did everything right.” And on an case-by-case level it’s true. If they listen to a call where I give a customer a large credit and they find that I did everything I could to bring it down and save the company money, they’ll tell me I did a good job. That even though it was a large credit, it was still a good call. Hell, I’ve even gotten compliments on calls like that from management for how well I handled them. Compliments, and a nosedive to my stats.

The lesson is clear: even if you do everything right, the only meaningful measurement of your performance can tank due to bad luck. Sure, it’s not totally out of our hands. The people with the consistently worst stats are usually the worst performers, and there are agents whose stats are consistently higher than average. But everyone on every level is fully aware of how much certain of these elements are out of our hands.

In industries across the spectrum this kind of thing is very, very common, and it is extremely dangerous. If morale matters—and study after study shows how much it affects productivity, even if you don’t think businesses have any responsibility to the psychological well being of their employees—then the incentive structure needs a good, hard look, and probably a serious talking to.

Why You Should Get Mad At Customer Service

Customer services

Another 37, Day 26

You just got your bill in the mail, and the company screwed you. I mean, really screwed you. There are hundreds of dollars of charges here that you never made. The bill is complicated, but you’ve spent some time with it and you’re confident it’s the company’s fault. You are mad as hell, and you’re for damn sure going to get to the bottom of this. You call up customer service. A young woman with a pleasant voice answers the phone, and asks how she can help you. You are ready to yell. You don’t want to yell. You hate to yell. But this is a problem, and you’re ready to do it.

Except you don’t. Because she’s so nice. Because she’s doing her best to help you out, within her limited abilities. Because it isn’t her fault that the company screwed you. You shouldn’t be taking it out on her. You’ll feel terrible. It’s the damn company fat cats, the ones who designed the crappy system to screw customers like you. They’re the ones you should be yelling at. That would be fair. That would be just. You should call them up and yell at them directly. So…good luck with that.

I work in customer service myself, and I deal with a lot of what we call “escalated calls.” Plenty of customers call in angry, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for crazy reasons that only exist in their mind-bubble. If you listen to CS reps talk, it sounds like all of the customers are nuts and just calling in to whine in about invented problems. Some of them are, of course, but not most of them. CS reps talk like that because humans love to bitch in the break room; it’s one of the ways we bond. But there’s another reason. A subtler and more insidious reason: We are trained to think like that. It happens at every level, from initial training, to the company guidelines on how to deal with people, to the way our supervisors guide us to deal with escalations. It is all a way to teach us that, as much as possible, these problems are the customer’s responsibility.

One of the main things we like to bitch about is customers who get angry at us. “Why the hell is this vitriol directed at me?” we ask. Don’t these customers recognize that this is not my fault, that I just work here and I’m just trying to help? I used to feel that way. It’s hard not to, especially when you get the nastier callers who seem to blame you for ruining their lives, and are not afraid to use highly colorful language about your bodily orifices to make this point.

But eventually it hit me. Yes, it’s not fair for customers to the hourly working just trying to pay their bills on the other end of the line for an overcharge by a Fortune 500 megacorp. But on the other hand, we are their point of contact for the company. Who the hell else are they going to blame? The people actually responsible are never, ever going to talk to them. This is not a coincidence.

My particular Customer Service Superpower—and every good rep has one—is that people find it difficult to get or stay mad at me. Even when they are clearly upset or aggravated I can almost always calm them down. I think it’s because I never sound upset or frustrated with them. It stems back to this over-developed set of empathy that, like most things, is an advantage and a disadvantage. Even when a person is clearly in the wrong I’m almost certainly going to sympathize with them, and if comes across in my voice. So many times I’ve heard people say, “I’m angry, but I know this isn’t your fault. I’m not blaming you.”

The thing is, human brains don’t divide things up very well. If you are talking to someone about an issues that upsets you but the person makes you feel calm and comfortable, you can’t help but feel calmer and more comfortable about the issue. It’s a variant on the halo effect, and it’s the same reason attractive people are better at selling real estate. Objectively the 5 bedroom colonial doesn’t have fewer plumbing problems when presented by Sexy Rita than it does with Ugly Joe. But Sexy Rita puts you in a better mood, so the problems won’t seem so bad. This effect has been thoroughly tested both in laboratories and in the field, and is extraordinarily robust. It doesn’t mean that your free will is somehow stripped away. But there’s a measurable influence.

When it comes to customer service, it means that that friend representative who is discussing those nasty charges but whom you don’t want to take it out on is manipulating you. She probably doesn’t mean to. Honestly there’s a good chance she has your best interests at heart, to the extent that she can while also keeping her job and doing her best for her employers. But the very fact that she calms you down, that you recognize her as a human being with feelings who is just a small part of an unfeeling machine, makes you less likely to fight for what you deserve from the company.

Right now, if you consider yourself a good person who is nice to service people, the idea that you should be willing you yell at them might be making you uncomfortable. That’s a good sign as to your humanity. On behalf of customer service representatives everywhere, I assure you that we highly and sincerely appreciate it.

And our bosses? They appreciate it even more.

The Stupid Little Things that Define Us

Work ???
Another 37, Day 23

Everything felt fantastic. Everything was fantastic. For the last few months work was a struggle. I didn’t want to go, I called out sick far too often because I knew I could get away with it. My stats suffered. What did I care? I had no motivation, and they were still better than most of my coworkers stats. Then everything changed. Something in me clicked as I sat in bed one evening bemoaning the fact that I had to leave for another day of drudgery in just a few hours.

Just own it, I said to myself. You can look for another job, you can do something else. But until you do, just bloody own it.

I told myself that before. Of course I had. But in that moment my brain was listening. My neurological state was exactly right. I still woke up groggy and distracted the next day, with a passionate desire to flop right back into bed. But I made myself go in and I threw myself into the work. I stepped up. I didn’t let the moments drag from one miserable phone call to another. I applied myself, and everything started to get better.

For the last few weeks I’ve been almost enjoying my crappy job. And I’ve suddenly gotten very, very good at it. We can get up to three customer satisfaction surveys in a given day, and after that they won’t generate. I’ve been getting all of my surveys in the first three hours of work, and all of them positive. All of them glowing. My stats have skyrocketed, and yesterday I walked out of my job feeling fantastic about it, about life, about the universe.

That was yesterday. Today was very, very different. I could tell straight away that I just wasn’t feeling it. That spark wasn’t there. “It’s fine,” I told myself. “It’ll come.” But it didn’t. I had a headache, and felt generally groggy and unmotivated. Maybe I’m sick, and maybe I’m not. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Even if I am sick, I’ve been to this place before. Full of vigor and motivation and passion, only to see it fade into a grimy haze of anxiety and laziness.

It’s been the story of my life, and it’s the deepest reason that I’ve never stuck to anything long enough to get really good at it. Because no matter how powerful I feel during my up phase, there has always come a time when I will stop caring. And that’s the key. You might be able to choose to work harder, to fight against laziness and temptation. But you can’t choose to want to do these things. You can’t choose to care. That’s why depression is so dangerous. It’s an old maxim that you can’t help someone change unless they want to change. And you can’t want to change unless you want to change.

I am not remotely alone. In fact, I think this might be the biggest factor when it comes to a successful life. Not my precise cycle, or my precise symptoms. But a variety of factors that fall into the same basic categories. When it comes right down to it, some people can make themselves do things they don’t want to do, and some people can’t. That might sound like a cop out, but frankly if you think that you are one of two types: either you are an idealist, or you have never, or very rarely, experienced the prolonged state of zero motivation. The temptation to just give up and do nothing, or distract yourself, that was undeniably stronger than your ability to overcome it.

When it comes down to it, I really am an idealist. I fully believe in the power of an individual to change her circumstances. But it takes a lot more than the desire to do it. It also takes the precursor to that desire. Maybe you can choose to fight against temptation and get up and exercise in the morning. But you can’t choose to have the strength, in that moment, to make the right choose.

Just like you might want to lift a heavy weight off of a trapped friend, but you can’t choose whether or not your muscles have that capacity. Some people can do it because they are naturally strong, or because they’ve worked out for years in preparation for this moment. Sometimes people can do it because, when it counts, adrenaline kicks in and gives them a burst of strength they wouldn’t normally have.

Motivation works the same way. It happened to me a few weeks ago. I sat in bed, whining inside my head, exactly like I had every night for months. But that night something was different. My broad view of the situation hadn’t changed. My abstract desires were no different. But in that moment the conditions were just right. Maybe it’s because the weather has been getting nicer. Maybe it’s because I recently gave up coffee in the mornings and I’m not feeling so shagged out. Maybe it’s because I had gotten a little more sleep than usual the night before. I don’t know, but it was something. Something I could never predict or control or choose. If I get any credit at all, it’s for taking advantage of it when I saw it.

But I’ve spent months without ever feeling that. Without ever being able to make myself care, or to make myself overcome the lethargy and anxiety that clung to my skin like an oily blanket. During those months I wanted to care. I wanted to change, to step up and take control of myself. I wanted it the way an ambitious business man wants more clients, or an aspiring actor wants more parts. But I couldn’t grab it, because at every moment of decision I couldn’t make myself care. Just like, for those people who achieve greatness, in those moments they can’t make themselves not care.

You can’t change your mental state just because you want to. I keep trying, and maybe some day I’ll elevate my state in a lasting and meaningful way. I believe it’s possible. Because despite the dour tone of this post I’m an optimist. And because research shows that believing it is true makes it more likely to be so for you. But I can’t know for sure. No one can. Today I felt crappy, and so I couldn’t reach in and ignite that spark. Maybe tomorrow will be better. If I see even the tiniest flame I will kindle it. But it’s impossible to light a fire when you have no combustibles. And it’s impossible to be other than what you are.