Day 1 on the French route 2019

This quote sums up the day and …life.
It was a day of mixed emotions: the joy and timelessness of being on the Camino on a brisk sunny morning combined with the pain and horror of coming upon a scene of a backpack laying in the road and the pavement stained in blood. A pilgrim made the fatal decision of stepping off the sidewalk on a quiet country road.
Later in the day i was looking forward to hearing some wisdom from Dave-you can read about him in my blog post http://www.caminobikeguide.com/…/my-best-self-is-more-like…/ Upon arriving at the free store oasis we find out that Dave has disappeared. No Dave. Just an uninterested man smoking and all Dave’s energy-gone. Just like pilgrim we saw in the ambulance. So yes, la presencia is all we have in this precarious emphemeral magical life.

I miss Dave.

The Pleasure/Happiness Conundrum

A guy is talking to his doctor about his health and he asks the doctor if he thinks he will live until he is 80. The doctor asks, “Do you drink?”

“No”

“Do you smoke?”

“No”

“Do you eat red meat?”

“No”

The doctor stops and asks him, “Then, why do you want to live til you’re 80?”

This old joke highlights the conflict between pleasure and happiness. We can think of pleasure as something immediate like eating a donut while happiness is how you will feel 4 hours after eating the donut. I will try to describe their complicated relationship and then offer my 2 cents.

Pleasure = Happiness

If you were lucky, childhood was a time when pleasurable activities, like playing games and reading with a parent, led to happiness. As kids we find ourselves in these “flow” activities in which we are totally absorbed. There is no conflict; pleasure and happiness are in-sync. As we age, we find people who we enjoy spending time with and these friendships or love affairs lead to our happiness (if we are fortunate). Some of us are lucky enough to have jobs that are both pleasurable in their daily tasks and lead to our general sense of well-being; they make us happy.

Pleasure=Unhappiness

We have evolved with scarcity: of food, drink, rest, sex, free time, peak experiences, etc. Our brains are tuned to these pleasurable activities because they have helped us survive. The problem today for many in the modern world is there is no scarcity; hence, we can’t really let the search for pleasure guide our decision making.

Pleasure (think now) can lead to unhappiness in the long term (think hours from now). Too much pleasure in the form of chocolate cake, a 12 year old Scotch, or watching Breaking Bad can lead to unhappiness. Every adult knows that we need to do things in moderation and to defer some gratification so we are able to accomplish things.

Unpleasurable things=Happiness

Then there is a whole category of things which are not really pleasurable in any way but lead to happiness. Riding a bike for longer than 30 minutes is painful the first time. Running a mile feels like torture if you’ve never ran. How many times did you have to eat vegetables, drink wine, or meditate before they became enjoyable (if ever)?  I recently started jumping into a frozen lake for five minutes at a time because of its profound effects on my mood and energy. None of this is easy. Whenever we start anything new we are awkward and incompetent. Malcolm Gladwell summed it up when he said that people like things that are hard and many of these ‘hard’ things lead to happiness.

What we need is an informed executive function to combat our biology. Daniel Kahneman calls this ‘slow thinking’ which is deliberate and thoughtful rather than ‘fast thinking’ which is quick and intuitive. It’s the slow thinking that says, “If you eat that donut, you are going to feel like crap in 2 hours”. Religion can play this role but often comes up short in the day-to-day decisions that we face in modern society.  What would Jesus say about time spent on social media? Science and the experience of others offer us guides for navigating the pleasure/happiness conundrum, especially when it comes to unpleasurable things that could make us happy. Here is my list of potentially unpleasurable daily activities that make me happy:

outdoor exercise; reduce process sugars; 12 hour eating window; green smoothie, cold water therapy; stretching; meditation; breathing; red wine with dinner; and yerba mate.

Inspired by: Rhonda Patrick, Ken Wilber, Tim Ferris, Sam Harris, Wim Hof, Buddha, Jesus, and Argentina

My best self is more like Dave

Dave lives on the Camino and has for almost 10 years. He lives outside of Astorga with no water or electricity and few modern conveniences. He lives off the donations of pilgrims and in turn provides weary travelers with just about anything they might need. With the donated cash from pilgrims and food from locals Dave provides an oasis; a free store stocked with everything from bananas, oranges, cookies, tea and my favorite, yerba mate. His day consists of fetching water, managing his inventory of snacks and talking with pilgrims.

His simple lifestyle is extreme compared to mine. I spend my day doing what humans love to do-process information. As a teacher I try to turn information into bite-sized edibles that demand some kind of action. At home it’s more information processing looking at screens filled with soccer matches and Netflix’ series. Neil Postman had it right when he said that all information has become entertainment. The allure of consuming information is in direct conflict with actually “doing”. With screen time there is no “doing”, just more information processing.

A life of screens and information processing promotes a dysfunctional individualism at the expense of common values. When I’m “doing” something creative or constructive, I can’t fall into anomie or normlessness.  “Doing” demands participation and often engagement with others.

This is what Dave inspires. He provides a radical model of a life of service with limited information processing. It manifests in his energy; his embrace is an electrified calmness.

Modern life has become a walk between opposing truths of Doing vs Info Processing. We can’t really ignore either and still function in society. Dave walks at the extreme end of Doing and provides a mirror that makes everyone reflect on the lives we live.

 

*You can also think of the two ends of the spectrum as Physical vs Mental or Carbon vs Silicon or Real vs Virtual.

My Best Self-part 1

I was listening to the podcaster Tim Ferriss interview Scott Belsky today when they got on the topic of their “Best Self”. Scott mentioned that when things were going badly his confidence would wane and if things were going too well his ego would become an issue. It got me wondering when or where is my best self.

When I think of my “Best Self” I think of traveling. Traveling certainly gets me out of my info bubble and helps protect against what the French philosopher Durkheim calls anomie. Anomie is when I become the one and only test to my own reality. (Thanks to the late Dr. Don Briel from the theology department at the University of St. Thomas for that meme).  However, there are only certain types of traveling and certain places that qualify. Few places can change the way I think about the world. These are places where the social dynamic is different. It’s places where others, too, are experiencing their best selves.

For me it’s a short list: Ragbrai-the bike ride across Iowa, Blue Skies music festival in Ontario, and the Camino de Santiago. All of these places have a different vibe, a place where you can start conversations with anyone because everyone around you has an open and exploratory mind.  

Let’s face it: I can’t acknowledge everyone I pass on the street, the homeless people at intersections, or all the people I know in a hallway of a school of 1000 students. Filtering is ignoring and its necessary to get through the day.  I have lost something being part of “modern society” with all its misanthropic demands.

The places I mentioned are not really places rather experiences: of biking, walking or listening to music. Simple and in a sense, goalless.  I and others are attracted to these places because everyone is a valued part of the experience. Waiting in line for a pork chop at Ragbrai is just another opportunity to have another conversation. When I sit down for an espresso on the Camino, I greet the person sitting next to me, and we may end up talking about our lives and what brought us here.

On my next post, Part 2, I will get further into anomie and the problems of our modern, connected society. I will look at how to fashion my best self while facing the modern dilemma of “information processing” versus “doing”. In the meantime I’d love to hear from you about the unique places that allows for your “Best Self”. Send me yours or just add them in the comment section. Cheers, Paul

(In order to frame this discussion, I want to focus on places where people are strangers, not family reunions, camps or other places where people know each other.)