Tag Archives: General

Something that Breaks my Heart

Something that Breaks my Heart

Many years ago, I joined an online forum community. One of the areas on this community was for scientific discussions. I had never had much interest in science in general, but I had been reading books about the brain – partly out of curiosity about my own issues, and partly because they were really fascinating. By the time I found this place, I had graduated to reading a fair number of skeptical and science blogs. My curiosity had been aroused. At the same time, my critical thinking skills were being tested and honed. Finding a place where people were discussing research and providing evidence and links to studies about brain things that were relevant to me was wonderful and exciting.

When people posted things that were well-supported, I found new sources of information in links and searches. When people considered implications or possibilities, they provided evidence and reason for their ideas. When people posted things that looked suspicious, I went off in search of the truth, and found out all kinds of knowledge that either rebutted or supported these things.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for someone posting about epigenetics in a way that sounded an awful lot like magical thinking, I would never have delved as deeply into this fascinating process as I have, and would not have learned most of the amazing things I now know about genetics, evolution, and developmental neurology. I had learned a lot about the physical structures of the brain and their functions, but without the input of the other curious and intelligent people there, I wouldn’t have known about the interconnectivity and the complex chemical and electrical communication that makes these structures function as a whole.

This was different from reading scientific information from scientists. While some were writing for public understanding, most were writing for their peers. These were not always places to pose elementary questions or ask if some speculation you had might have some factual support. This forum was, and I looked forward to visiting it every day. The dialogues were lively, and disagreements were usually battles of who had the most robust evidence. I was interested in science, but it was this particular place that got me excited about it.

No more.

Sadly, an extremely small number of people have been given carte blanche to ignore all the rules that used to make this discussion area work. Should anyone dare to post anything remotely resembling fascinating new information, they descend upon the conversation and shut it down. Every thread looks like a copy-paste of every other thread; evidence is disregarded in favor of dogma; anyone who disagrees with what is basically the only topic of the entire area is told they are wrong with a thinly veiled insult to their intelligence.

Cognitive dissonance should be a call to arms – go out and find the truth! It should prepare you to learn more and change your mind if you discover that the best evidence contradicts what you think you know. Now, the ability to ignore that conflict is treated as the highest of virtues.

Here was a place filled with creative, curious people, who had unusual approaches to connecting ideas, different ways of putting things together and taking them apart. Here was a place where the goal was not to be right for the sake of being right, but to be right because you could show your work. Here was a place that was exciting and interesting and challenging.

It is gone, and I don’t anticipate it ever coming back. I used to direct people to this place to get information; now I tell them they won’t find what they’re looking for there. It is hostile and uninviting to the very type of thinkers it used to attract. I miss it terribly.

The Fall of the American Empire?

The Fall of the American Empire?

I hope I’m being alarmist. I hope I’m unduly concerned. I hope that this all is just a hump we’ll get over after a few difficult years. What I’m thinking here is that there are people alive today who will witness the decline and fall of this country.

I was thinking pragmatically when I voted for Obama. I expected that he was not going to be able to live up to his promises, or find that his ideas were unrealistic once he was in office, and chose him not because I had any faith in him being the hope and change he promised, but because he was better than the alternative. I also expected that the GOP was going to continue to oppose any efforts of the Democrats and the Democratic Party regardless of their merit simply for the sake of opposing them. What I didn’t expect was that the President and what’s close to every elected Democrat in this country would cave to a slew of destructive Republican demands so that the Republicans would agree to one or two inconsequential concessions.

All I can see now is that both Obama’s budget proposal and the Republican cuts are going to fast-track our country into a third-world standard of living, if not actual third-world status. At first, all I objected to was the short-sightedness of politicians at all levels all around the country – did they not think about the greater implications of the changes they were proposing? Some ideas impacted quality of life by removing or restricting services, some by taking away funding or re-allocating it misguidedly. Bit by bit, the picture began to emerge that one side had a clear agenda for a new social structure, and the other had only a few pet ideas that it would half-heartedly defend.

Yes, a lot of things should be cut. A lot of programs spend more money than they should. A lot of programs don’t generate results that justify their budgets or their continued existence. Looking at a list, I can see some things that could be consolidated, managed better, or yes, even eliminated. What I don’t see, though, are cuts to things that could manage just fine without government assistance, like corporate welfare and tax credits, and tax structures that benefit the wealthiest individuals in the country. Instead, what’s being taken away in these proposals are programs that help those without the money or power to help themselves, or programs that protect them from abuse by the people and entities in power. Almost all the proposals coming to the table from both sides increase the gap between the haves and have nots, push the middle class and working poor closer to the latter category, and erode the quality of life for all those who can’t buy their own luxury and peace of mind.

At the state level here in NJ, we’re seeing this on a much more obvious level, since there are fewer places to hide waste and favoritism. When Governor Whitman eliminated state pension contributions in order to cover budget deficits, and then (of course) never quite got back to putting that money back (nor, to be fair, did Corzine) we of course ended up with not enough money to pay pension benefits to retiring state employees. Contrary to what politicians would like us to think, most of these employees are not lazing about the public trough, living easy at the cost of our tax dollars. The bad apples are held up as examples of how undeserving these people are, but the truth of the matter is that the ones who are getting hurt have worked hard, many of them dealing with the hardship of low wages in exchange for benefits, and have put in their time. They signed contracts that made specific legal promises, and planned their lives with those promises in mind. At retirement or close to retirement age, they should not have the rug pulled out from underneath them because someone else didn’t plan as well as they did.

At the same time, people higher up the food chain are not being asked to make the same sacrifices. Small pockets of outrage have erupted over double-dipping politicians, patronage jobs that pay six figures for showing up a few hours a week, and contracts that allow certain elected or appointed individuals to collect the full salary for their term of employment and keep generous retirement benefits even if they’re booted out early. The problem is, I think, that your average Joe who votes sees the “lazy government workers” in his daily life, is affected personally by the “bad kids produced by all the rotten schools and overpaid teachers,” knows people who “get off easy” or “get screwed over” by “corrupt cops”. . .ask anyone to provide examples of how any state or local employee is getting more than he deserves from our hard-earned tax dollars, and you’ll get tons of anecdotal evidence. Ask him what’s in the contract for his school superintendent, or how many duplicate jobs exist at the upper levels of state administration, and all you’ll get is a blank stare.

So rather than making good on the debt, Governor Christie comes out like a raging bull, demonizing public employees so that he can cut their salaries, benefits, and numbers with impunity, and further the disconnect between budget problems and excess at the higher levels. Not only does he effectively swell the ranks of the poor and impoverished, but he also proposes cuts to things that benefit all of us. Public programs that house the mentally ill will lose funding, putting more of them out homeless on our streets – your streets, if you don’t live in a gated community. Funding cuts for schools that result in fewer and less qualified teachers and fewer extracurricular opportunities will give us bored, uneducated, disaffected young people, rather than future leaders who contribute to society – the kids down the street will be robbing and vandalizing your house rather than, say, shoveling your driveway or watching your kids, because what else is there for them to do? And if you call the cops after they do this (or the fire department, if they get a little too enthusiastic) you’re going to have to accept that they might not be able to get there, sorry, because they’re understaffed and haven’t been able to afford to fix some of the broken equipment.

Open spaces aren’t being preserved, so if you don’t own your own pristine recreational acreage, you’d better be happy with the view out your window. Other agencies and organizations that preserve history or provide recreational opportunities are closing up shop, so the field trips that got students excited about learning just won’t happen, and you’ll have to come up with your own ideas for things to do with the family on weekends. Yahtzee and Monopoly will wear thin pretty quickly, and you won’t be able to go to the local library, because the special programs will be gone and the hours will be cut, if it even manages to stay open.

Horse racing, however you feel about it, takes up a lot of space and doesn’t contribute as much as casinos, so the entire equestrian industry in the state is taking a hit. You might not think much about it, but once those horse farms become new housing developments, it’ll be too late to realize you didn’t want to lose them.

And speaking of casinos, you get to buy those whether you like it or not. Revel paved the way – they began construction and then threatened to leave the rotting hulk if they didn’t get the funding and tax breaks they wanted. New Jersey caved on that. Since you paid for it, you should probably go visit it. While you’re there, take a tour of the sparkling gem that is Atlantic City. The casinos got incentives and breaks from the state because they promised to give back – specifically to the town in which they operated. What you actually see, though, is a microcosm of our future as planned by lockstep Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats. The haves – the casinos with their flaunted wealth, taking in money from working people and keeping most of it through special arrangements and creative accounting, and the have-nots – the people of AC, most of them at or below the poverty line, in decrepit housing with inadequate public services, whose future generations will not have received the education or assistance to rise above it and make a better life for themselves or their families. Keep your car windows rolled up and your doors locked, and don’t depend on the police showing up if you need them.

As Atlantic City is a smaller version of what may await us as a state, it is also a smaller version of where our country may be headed if the budgetary efforts to increase the class divide succeed. Nothing anyone has done has been able to counteract or slow this process in that city. If that’s what happens on a local scale, I don’t have high hopes that it will be different in a state or regional or national level.

Dealing with an ADD-C Adult.

Dealing with an ADD-C Adult.

Yeah, this is me. Your mileage may vary. ADD is a spectrum disorder, which means some people might not even know they have it, and others will never do well at supporting or caring for themselves. It rarely travels alone, so you’ll find a lot of ADDers who are depressed or bipolar, have dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalcula, or even autism spectrum disorder. It’s also a collection of symptoms that are divided into hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. You need to have at least six of the symptoms in two or more of the categories, and it has to be disabling in two or more environments. Depending on the distribution, you can be ADHD (hyperactive), ADD-PI (primarily inattentive) or ADD-C (combined – neither primarily hyperactive nor primarily inattentive.) So we’re not all the same, but no matter what, it’s no walk in the park.

Children nowadays get diagnosed early enough that they can be helped behaviorally and/or pharmaceutically, but most of us in the over-30 age group made a lot of mistakes, failed at tons of things, lost friends and spouses and jobs, and couldn’t figure out why or how to stop doing it all over again. Because when we were young, if we were diagnosed at all, the whole of the problem was being hyperactive, and the accepted wisdom was that we’d outgrow it. All the other stuff that we now know is integral to ADD, for us, was character flaws. Lots of emotional baggage. So it’s a good thing to know how and why you’re different so you can figure out what you can and can’t change, and stop beating yourself up when you fail at trying to change that second one all the time.

It’s really hard to explain what it’s like to live with an ADD brain for a lot of reasons. If you have ADD, you lose count of all the times you’ve tried and been told things like “oh, everyone loses their keys,” or “that’s just an excuse for being lazy.” If you live with someone who has ADD, it can drive you nuts when it seems like you’re speaking a different language to each other and everything’s in constant chaos.

So I’m going to explain what it’s like for me, and a few things that make it easier to be like me or live with someone like me. More below the fold. Read the rest of this entry

My Depression Poem

My Depression Poem

I can feel the cloud envelop me.
Do not tell me to cheer up-
I have no limbs, but you ask me to fly.
Would you command
a dead man
to breathe?

Do not remind me of my blessings –
to have such wonderful things in my life
and still feel no joy
makes me
ungrateful.

Do not tell me I am beautiful;
that you love me;
I feel ugly and unworthy of love.
When you tell me these things
either I have tricked you into seeing me
as something I am not
or you
are lying to me
which
is
worse

Do not tell me anything.
Just take me to the doctor
and get me
my damn
meds.

Thoughts on Stalkers!

Thoughts on Stalkers!

I recently purchased “The Narrow Stairs” by Death Cab for Cutie, so I’ve been listening to “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and revisiting why it creeps me out (even though I like the song.) In the same vein, this appeared on Emails From Crazy People. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

When the song first came out, I was shot down for finding it a creepy-stalker song. Some of the comments on EFCP reflect the same attitude towards the protagonists of both the song and the note – aww, poor guy, too shy to tell the girl he loves her face to face. . .NONONONONO!!! Wrong! Yes, there is definitely social ineptitude there, but there’s a fine line between not knowing the right way to tell someone you like her (or him) and making yourself frightening to that person. I realized that one of the reasons I heard the alarms going off in my head is that I actually have been stalked, on more than one occasion, and I didn’t find it sweet or romantic in any way. If you’ve experienced it yourself, or known someone who had, you would not call the stalker “sweet” or “shy” or “romantic.”

For purposes of brevity, I’m going to use the masculine pronouns here. It’s not that women are never stalkers (just ask David Letterman, for one) but that I’m relating it to my own experience, and because male stalkers are more commonly known. Here is why stalking is ALWAYS creepy:

The stalker is either someone you have already rejected (check out those song lyrics) or someone you would reject (the stalker knows this, which is why the approach is indirect.) He is not some shy, hopeless romantic. . .he is strange, and the strangeness evident in his stalking behavior only scratches the surface of his strangeness.

He knows you will reject him, or have, but is convinced that all he needs to do is back you into a corner, capture you, or confine you until Stockholm Syndrome kicks in. Does this work for anything? Would any sane person, after being held prisoner mentally, emotionally, or physically, ever decide that her captor/tormentor was really the love of her life? No, that would happen only after her sanity had been compromised, and her escape options had run out.

He sees you as an object. He sees you as a possession. He sees you as Galatea to his Pygmalion – a lump of clay to be carved and perfected until you fit his purpose. Your individuality, your thoughts and feelings, your sense of self-worth are all subordinate to his idea of who you should be. He has already figured out who you are and how you will fit into his life, even if the closest he’s ever been to you is fifty feet away. He doesn’t know who you really are, and doesn’t care – his mind is made up. A healthy relationship involves compromise, but what he’s looking for involves none whatsoever on his part.

He’s STALKING you! He may be outside your window while you’re sleeping. He may be following you on your errands. He may be sitting outside your office ALL DAY LONG. No matter where you go or what you do, you never know if you’re being watched from a distance. If it goes on long enough, he may come indoors, speak with other people you know about you, even break into your home (because he knows you’d never actually let him in.) His stalking behavior can very easily become threatening or dangerous. Ronald Reagan and John Lennon were both shot by stalkers. Many kidnappings were preceded by stalking. Notes from stalkers often contain escalating threats over time. A normal person would not imagine that implying dire consequences would cause another person to change her mind about loving him, but a stalker would, and often does. He will kill or hurt someone to make you love him. He will break into your home and steal things to show you the depth of his affection. He might even do things to hurt himself and tell you about them so that you know what YOU are doing to HIM by not responding to his advances.

Someone who is sweet and shy and romantic is harmless, and might indeed get the girl of his dreams based on his virtues and patience. The stalker is not harmless. He is not sweet. He is not shy. He is not romantic. There is nothing positive about his actions. He is a stalker, and he is creepy. A song about a stalker is creepy because stalkers are creepy. He might not think so, but we all should know better.

Body Work

Body Work

I wasn’t going to say anything, but I’m sitting here in the middle of another annoying hot flash. They’re becoming fewer, and the intensity is diminishing, but the only good thing I can say about this is thank goodness I’ll be dealing with this for months rather than years. I have nothing bad to say about having a hysterectomy, and the hot flashes would have come anyway. I can predict some of them. . .every time I wake up, every time I lie down in bed. If I get up in the middle of the night, that’s a twofer. I’m finding that three layers are good, if cumbersome. Two shirts and a sweater for the normal cold house temperature. Sweater comes off for a mild one. Sweater and one shirt for a bad one. If nobody’s home, sometimes that last shirt comes off for a minute or two. 😉 I’m sure that by the time I’m almost completely done, I’ll remember to take my coat off before I drive, because I’m always getting pissy when a hot flash comes on and I can’t un-layer. It’s worse even than getting an itch on the bottom of your foot when you’re wearing boots and driving. WAY worse!

You know, though, I wish I’d been able to convince a doctor to do this years and years ago. I don’t have to worry about confining myself to the house in case my periods are too heavy for the most superest-plusest feminine protection. No more feeling like I have a bag of rocks in my abdomen. No more ovulation pain and cyst-busting pain. And the best is that I’m off antidepressants. That wasn’t part of the original plan, but unrelated circumstances led to weaning off, and when they were out of my system, I felt fine.

Well, fine as in before clinical depression. I do miss my Adderall, because ADD doesn’t switch on and off with hormones. I’d like to sleep, I’d like to focus, but I’d also like to see what I can accomplish without chemical intervention. And really, I’m better at focusing on one thing at a time, so right now it’s going to be losing all the extra weight. And I’m saying that here so that it’s out there to keep me honest.

South Beach, Phase 1 vegetarian. Short term this summer worked well, but then came band season (and cookie season, and grabbing something at the concession stand because you had no time to eat because you were packing and unpacking the band truck season. . .) and I lost track. So that’s where my head is right now. Remind me of that in case I forget! My blood sugar is on the high end, SB worked well for my mom on both the weight and blood sugar fronts, so we’re giving it another shot. Wish me luck.

Once I like what I see in the mirror and enjoy clothes again, I’ll decide what to tackle next.

When to Quit?

When to Quit?

I’ve been seeing this all over lately (not just from band kids; don’t get paranoid), people who are quitting something, or someone, and I’ve been thinking about why people quit and whether or not they should, and what leads to it, and whether they’re serious when they say they’re going to quit. . .I’m not sure if there seems to be a lot of it going around lately, or whether I’m just noticing it more.

I don’t want to go into lecture mode. I’ve done my share of quitting, and sometimes my reasons have not been the best. I think maybe I’m trying to understand why I’m finding some people’s reasons more legitimate than others by relating them to my own experiences, or maybe I’m becoming aware of mistakes I made both in committing to something I might not be able to stick with, or quitting for the wrong reasons. I just know that when I look at what other people are doing, I don’t want to just decide if it’s right or wrong, I want to know why I think it’s right or wrong, and what I’ve done or learned from doing that makes me feel that way.

A lot of times I think that we’re encouraged to make commitments, or expected to make commitments, and make them to avoid having to think about why we don’t want to. We’re supposed to go to college, get married, have children, buy a house, for example, which means that many people who shouldn’t do these things do them, and end up unhappy and maybe even failing, because they committed to something they probably knew deep down was not really what they wanted. Worse, by the time they realize that it’s never going to work out, their desire to quit is made even more complicated by the fact that other people are involved, and the negative impact quitting would have on them is just as important a consideration as is the negative impact of continuing on the person who is unhappy. I know that my feelings on these type of commitments is colored by my own experience, as well as by watching the experiences of those around me, so if I say something here that sounds judgmental or absolutist, that’s unintentional. I’m just trying to figure out the whys and wherefores.

I think we should encourage people to make commitments, to try sticking things out enough to really give them a chance, but the things that should be committed to shouldn’t be a generic laundry list for everyone. When things aren’t working out, or have reached a particularly difficult point, we all find that we have a strong desire to quit, and very often a reasonable sounding opportunity presents itself. We have a fight with someone, or a better opportunity comes up, or another commitment takes precedence. . .however, sometimes we have to make them up in order to get out of whatever it is that we no longer wish to be a part of. I know I’ve done that, and I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t at least once or twice taken offense where none was intended to precipitate that fight, or cultivated that other opportunity well before quitting, or shifted our priorities around to make it seem like our commitments were in conflict. Even though I’ve done this, I’ve tried to teach my daughters to stick with things at least until they have had a chance to weather the rough times and see if their desire to quit is only situational. We’ve put reasonable time limits – you have to do this for a year, or for a season (as in band, or a team sport, or anything that requires a consistent and predictable number of people for success – and lasts for less than a year for all practical purposes) and then if you don’t like it, you can quit. Just try performing in a recital once to see if you like it. Do one competition and then decide if you want to compete or not. Stick it out until the teacher/coach/team leader can find a replacement. The idea is that there is a culmination or an end goal, and that once you’ve gone through the full cycle and reached that finale, you have a taste of the commitment from beginning to end and can make a more informed decision about whether or not to quit.

Those kind of commitments, though, seem to be connected more with our young lives. Once we get older, we’re supposed to pick something and then do it forever. The type of experience we have during our school years in no way prepares us for that. We can do something in Middle School for a year, or two, or three. We can do something in High School for a year or four and move on – and we can make a four year commitment that obligates us only once or twice a week for nine months out of each year! College gives us opportunities galore to get our feet wet and then move on without finishing what we started. No matter how well we’ve learned to follow through, we’ve still got so many chances to try something for just a bit and drop it if we don’t want to do it anymore that the lesson can easily fall by the wayside. And then we’re supposed to pick a major that will prepare us for the job we will do for the rest of our lives. Then we’re supposed to get a job – and even if we don’t stay with the same company, we’re supposed to plan a career path that takes us upward and keeps us employed in a particular area until we’re allowed to retire. And we’re supposed to pick someone to stay with for the rest of our lives (thankfully, this one does frequently work, but it would work more often if some of the pressure eased up) and have children and raise them to do the exact same thing (also something that would work better if more personal choice were respected.) I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded about what happens when people cave to the expectation that they possess certain things like houses and cars when the reality is that they should wait or not get those things in the first place. All these “adult” commitments carry a hefty burden and can have a load of negative repercussions for quitting – or failing – and sometimes the best way to avoid quitting is to avoid committing in the first place.

Now that I’m mulling it over, I’m starting to see that we need more opportunities for short term commitments, and more opportunities to make longer but still limited commitments, because we can’t possibly know what they might entail when they make the jump from a year or a season to a lifetime. It’s easy to think something will be great when you first start, but not realize what might change over time, whether it’s the situation or your attitude or your abilities to keep up. Somewhere there’s a line, though, because we learn important things when we stick things out through rough times. We need to be able to make commitments for limited times and complete our obligations, because we need to know how to put up with difficulties and work through them. We need opportunities to make different kinds of commitments so we can learn what is really important to us – is the end result worth the hassles in the middle? Is it worth it enough to keep doing it, or to do the same thing with different people, or do something similar in a different area? We can’t possibly know whether or not we want to do something for a long term unless we’ve had the chance to try it out on a smaller scale.

What I can’t put my finger on, though, is where those changes should be made. Certainly, some people have taken the reins in this by no longer expecting to get a job and stay with the company until they retire (even if that all started because corporations were treating people as expendable!) or by spreading out their education or changing schools and majors as they learn more about themselves. And I think, just as certainly, that some commitments cannot be shortened – children, for example, are not a commitment that has an expiration date. Somewhere, though, there has to be more compromise. Perhaps it’s because I’m older that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to stick out a school year. That period of time is a much smaller segment of my life than it was when I was a quarter of the age I am now. And certainly because I’m older I think that some ages are too young to insist on a lifetime future commitment. However, the more I talk to myself here the more I realize that there are many occasions when it would have been better to say up front “I’m going to try this for X number of years and then decide if I want to continue” than to realize I was in over my head, or didn’t like it as much as I thought I would, or find I’d bitten off more than I could chew and then had to quit, leaving people in the lurch.

I know that I’ve learned a lot from sticking with things even when I was dissatisfied or unhappy. Maybe, though, I would have been less dissatisfied or unhappy if I had set limitations in the first place? I do know that I’ve learned that I prefer honesty to excuses, negotiating to complaining, and confrontation to stewing in anger, and after writing this, I’m thinking those things need to be front-end-loaded rather than brought out when I’m starting to think of quitting. Sometimes I’ve ended up not quitting when I’ve been honest, negotiated, and confronted (but not aggressively, of course!) and the problems were cleared up.

I guess, then, that I’ve been talking to myself here, rather than anyone whose talk of quitting got me to thinking in the first place. Commitments need to be fixed in scope and time period. Commitments need to be adhered to within that scope and time period. Dissatisfaction or unhappiness do not negate the commitment, and those feelings need to be conveyed to the relevant people associated with the commitment so that problems and conflicts can be resolved. Decisions about future commitments need to be considered based on previous experiences, and limitations about the scope and time period need to be set in advance, both for the initial and any future commitments. And if, despite all that, I want to quit, I won’t make excuses or lie about my reasons, even if I have to parse them in such a way that feelings are spared. If I do, I’m doing no good to myself or anyone else. So perhaps the person I needed to lecture about quitting was myself. . .

An Allegory on Belief

An Allegory on Belief

I know that the allegory is an often disparaged form of argument, but for me it is almost essential. The allegory creates a visual picture in the mind of an often ethereal concept, and creates a connection that allows many of us to better recall the details of the argument itself. I’m all about visuals and connections, and allegories – good ones, mind you – are often helpful to me in understanding an intangible concept. As such, I often find myself creating allegories to strengthen my understandings, and this is one I thought of this morning that seemed worthy of sharing.

We all believe things, whether it is because we lack portions of knowledge (a common problem, since nobody knows everything!) or because we have a hope that would be supported by belief. Belief itself is not a problem. In fact, a belief that urges us towards better understanding or towards a positive attitude is probably a pretty good thing. What nudges belief into being a negative thing is when it is used in lieu of available knowledge, or when it is used to obscure available knowledge. Even then, it is only mildly harmful, in that it is belief held by an individual. Consequences of holding a belief in such circumstances are borne only by the person who holds them. What makes belief that replaces or represses knowledge harmful is when that belief (and the arguments for sustaining it despite contrary evidence) is spread to others. Knowledge unsought or misused can become more and more harmful the more it is spread. . .

I do many creative things, and find that the ever-expanding information about materials, uses, and techniques is sometimes even more enjoyable to discover than putting that information to use. However, as more is discovered, some older information is often found to be incorrect. This information, though, has usually been widely available and often used to teach beginners, which means that many people learned to do things poorly, which means that many people thought that they could never attain a good result, which led to many people thinking that they just couldn’t do something simple, which led to self-deprecation. “I tried, but I’m no good at it,” stops the conversation. Sometimes people will follow that statement with something more empowering; they might then talk about something in which they excel. Often it simply hangs in the air. The person who excels feels bad for reminding someone else of his or her failings. The person who has failed is reminded of her shortcomings. Any enlightenment is promptly snuffed out.
So what does this have to do with belief? Well, let me start with my allegory. (I know you were waiting with bated breath!)

I sew. I hunt for bargains. If I see something that appears to be a material I could use, and it’s a fabulous bargain, I might not worry too much about its makeup. After I get it home – and let’s assume it’s fabric for this story, although it could be nearly anything – I’ll wash it and dry it and see how it comes out. This way, I know that any chemicals that alter the appearance or hand or drape of the fabric have been taken out, and that any changes due to laundering have happened before I’ve put all the work into constructing an item. (Piece of knowledge – I know that there are chemicals used to make fabric easier to manufacture, or to make it more attractive on a sales floor. Piece of knowledge – certain fibers change during/after laundering, and even with the greatest care these changes can take place in subsequent launderings.) If I see these changes, I then need to put some more consideration into how I will use this piece.

When the laundering is done, the change the fabric has undergone might require me to treat the fabric differently. Let’s narrow it down to a single piece for this example – a shiny, stiff fabric in a lovely iridescent shade.

In the store, I see this piece, and it looks almost like a taffeta, although a bit lighter bodied. I may think it would be good for the skirt of a formal dress, and it’s 70% off and a unique color, so I buy it. There is no indication at the bargain fabric store of what it might really be, because the sale table is mixed remnants of all kinds. Once home, I pop it into the washer and dryer – formal or not, anything I make needs to be washable. The fabric comes out crazed with wrinkles, but incredibly soft and drapey. It bears little resemblance to the smooth, stiff piece I bought. (Piece of knowledge – even the stiffest shiny fabrics may come out like this, but only some can be restored to that state.) At this point, I need to decide if I’m going to find a way to work with it as is, or if I’m going to try to remove the wrinkles and/or restore some of the stiffness. If I’m being smart and thinking ahead, I’ll then take a small piece and do a burn test. The burned fabric will curl up or melt into little balls if it is an artificial fiber, but leave crumbled or flaky ash if it’s natural, a combination of these if it’s mixed. (Piece of knowledge – a low temperature iron is less likely to burn an artificial fiber, but won’t take out the wrinkles, while a high temperature iron might replace the wrinkles with a sheen on bumps like darts, folds, pleats, and seam allowances.) Before I ruin the whole piece trying to get the wrinkles out, I need to decide if the fabric can handle a temperature high enough to get the wrinkles out. If it can’t, I have the knowledge to re-imagine the fabric’s potential and use it for a different project. (Piece of knowledge – the fabric can be underlined to give it more body, or can be used in a manipulated form as it is in smaller areas than a full formal skirt. Piece of knowledge – I can also take advantage of the fabric’s properties and re-launder it in a manipulated form.)

This is an example of a set of beliefs that are challenged by knowledge, that change as more knowledge is gained, and that continue to offer hope as they changed. I believed that the fabric was shiny and stiff, and imagined it as one garment. When it came out of the dryer, I believed that I could iron out the wrinkles and imagined it as something else. When I did the burn test, and found that it was too delicate to withstand ironing, I was once again able to imagine a different purpose for it, based on my knowledge of sewing and fiber arts. My beliefs all started with a lack of knowledge (Will it come out of the wash like it went in? Will I be able to get it back to the way it was? What is this stuff made of, anyway?) and hope (imagining throughout the process all the wonderful things the fabric could become) that were changed as knowledge grew. Additionally, at no point did the beliefs cause any harm beyond increasing the amount of time and thought I had to put into using the fabric (or requiring me to go out shopping again if the project had to be done regardless and this fabric wouldn’t work for it!)

Now, how in the world could a belief in the properties of a fabric, or not knowing how a particular fabric needed to be treated or used be a harmful belief, you might ask. Well, consider if I were to love that fabric enough to open a store whose entire inventory consisted of shiny, stiff fabrics. Consider if I were to stock that store with fabrics of all different fiber contents, labeling none of them, and then advertise myself as a fabric store for fancy dress fabrics. I could even have regular fantastic sales events to draw people in. Even beginners would be tempted to try whipping up wedding dresses and prom gowns.

These beginners, though, are not going to know that some fabrics won’t withstand even the most delicate of cleanings, or behave differently from each other, or look just fine until they attempt to press the final garment. People with knowledge might bypass my store entirely, or ask for cut samples to test at home before buying, or decide the sale price makes something worth buying no matter what it turns out to be. No harm there. People who have some knowledge might decide to not clean the fabric at all, treat it very carefully, and understand that the garment might be worn only once. People with very little knowledge will know only that they have failed once again when they end up wasting time and money on an unwearable garment. Imagine, though, that the harm is even greater – the people whose knowledge is limited get no additional knowledge from me or my store, and end up believing that all shiny, stiff fabric is identical – and never try again. And moreso, they believe that their lack of success is due to personal failure, and not only learn no more but also anticipate failure so deeply that they do not try to learn any other creative art.

Belief, here, that a shiny, stiff fabric is simply that, and lack of knowledge about how to work with various types of fabric, has done a great deal of harm. People who believe that a particular type of sewing (or any sewing, indeed) is out of their realm question their abilities – might even cause others to question their own (I was thinking about making a dress, but when Mary told me all the troubles she had. . .). The sorely discouraged won’t even try flower arranging or scrapbooking, hurting not only themselves and their self-image, but the flourishing of businesses and artists in those endeavors that they’ve dismissed. Existing knowledge will not be passed along. New knowledge will be shared only by a persistent few. The set of beliefs that follow that first one, “I guess this is too hard for me;” “I’m really bad at sewing;” “I’m not creative at all;” “I suck at all that arts and crafts stuff;” “I mess up everything I do;” become more and more staunch defenders of the wall of enclosed knowledge. The beliefs do not encourage learning, do not inspire hope of anything attainable, and as they spread do so even more.

Most beliefs range between the mostly harmless, personal ones and the negative ones like those above that have consequences for only the people who have tested the waters themselves. If the beliefs are challenged and either are overridden by new knowledge or changed to accommodate new knowledge, it doesn’t mean that belief (and the hope and anticipation it might inspire) is wasteful or useless. The changed belief might even inspire better things because it compels believers to expand their horizons further.

There are people in the world who give belief far more weight than knowledge, though, and this is where the harm lies. They feel that belief must be taught to others, that any knowledge that challenges a particular belief must be denigrated or suppressed, that the belief must be held regardless of whether it eventually causes harm to individuals or weakens a society. They believe (!) that what they believe must be true because they and sometimes others believe it, and insist that as many people as possible be taught how to believe it (and how to resist learning about things that don’t outright support that belief.) Teaching a belief, teaching the unknowing how to avoid further knowledge, does worse than impede progress; it actually encourages regress.

I do not condemn belief. As I said in the beginning, belief can actually be a good thing – shoring up confidence and curiosity – or at the very least, unharmful. A people or group of people can still do great things under the banner of belief. What I condemn is the active presentation of belief as a means to stifle knowledge; I condemn the use of belief as a tool to control others; I condemn belief as a way to demean people into a particular way of behavior. I condemn belief as a substitute for knowledge.

My fabric store, FWIW, would convey not only my points of knowledge, but all the new information that would be gathered from staff and customers and media that built upon them. Each time knowledge supplanted a belief, new ones would be presented, challenged, and tested. The possibilities would never stop expanding, in part because the beliefs expanded side by side with new information, in part because the beliefs filled their need and encouraged people to keep trying and learning – new knowledge would encourage the kind of positive need a belief fulfilled until even more knowledge displaced it.