Life in the silo

drawing of commuter with earphones ignoring panhandler

I believe in the essential goodness of people.

I may forget it here and there, when I’m pressed for time, or not well-rested/-fed/-clothed, or when some deep, emotional trigger gets pulled. But usually, and fairly quickly, I recognize these lapses as such. They’re my (temporary) deviations from an essentially optimistic, basically loving worldview, brought on by my own forgetfulness in administering self-care.

What reels me back in varies, but the underlying, foundational bit of knowledge I’m operating from goes something like this:

I do not change the world I live in by reacting to it like a jackass, except for the worst.

This is not a bad thing to keep in mind all the time (along with useful stuff like “breathe!” and “stop!” and “when’s the last time you ate, anyway?”), but it’s a really, really good thing for me to remember when something awful happens. It is quick and easy to reach for anger, for outrage, for righteous indignation. There they are, all handy and stuff, just like the drive-thru window of your favorite fast-food place. And hey, everyone else is at the fast-food place, right? Damn right! That’s why this #$@(!) line is so long! *HONK!* *HO-O-O-O-ONK!*

At a little gathering this weekend, someone reminded me of a great assessment device for making sound decisions: what would your future self want?

Will your future self be happy that you shaved a half-hour off of your afternoon by picking up Extra-Value Meal #9? Or would your future self prefer to continue fitting comfortably in her pants, remaining ambulatory and independent into her dotage, continuing to poop from her factory-installed organs?*

The nice thing about this kind of projection is that it is easily (okay, SIMPLY) reframed to encompass more and more compassion and awareness as I get better at it. Does my future self want to wade through a world thigh-deep in single-use plastic? Or, how might my future self feel explaining to her theoretical nieces and nephews as we all munch dejectedly on our Soylent Green that yeah, we could sure use some of those resources my cohort and I burned through, but man, were those burgers fast-‘n’-tasty! And, as you see, so on.

I am not always the best at considering Future Colleen. Far from it. One thing that really seems to help is keeping myself a wee bit uncomfortable. Not in a martyr-ish way, necessarily, although putting a cap on the thermostat, or asking whether you really need this or that important doodad, doesn’t hurt. (More on that, and 2011’s theme of Conscious Stewardship, to come.)

No, I’m talking about the discomfort involved in stepping out of the silo and bumping up against my fellow man. I dread the thought of socializing. Amazingly, more and more the actual experience usually varies from “pretty good” to “awesome,” but even if it’s objectively a low-grade Torquemada-fest of enervation or bombastery, if I can muster the right mindset, it’s usually enlightening and it’s always strengthening.

There are degrees of this, then, too, bumping up against lots and lots of my fellow men, in small groups and the occasional noisy crowd. Meeting them on their home turf. Acting as leader, or hostess. Things that are terrifying, at first, but that one gets better at. No, really. I’m not just a reasonably assimilated introvert; I’m so acclimated now that more often than not, I pass for extravert.

Achieving even this level of comfort took years of assiduous plugging away: Nerdmasters; networking practice, under the kind and patient tutelage of another reformed introvert; hurling myself again and again into scary, unfamiliar circumstances. In other words, not easy, not overnight. But oh, so well worth it.

I know how annoying it is hearing people parrot platitudes like “Be the change!”, especially on Twitter or Facebook. Knee-jerk anything is suspect, save perhaps the impulse to throw oneself under a future bus to save one’s theoretical niece or nephew. But at almost-50, and having foregone a great deal of potential income in favor of exploring more existential concerns, I think I’ve earned the tiniest right to suggest that maybe, just maybe, this lack of tolerance thing is kinda-sorta becoming a problem. And that perhaps, just perhaps, we might do well to bring a bit of awareness to it. That’s all. I don’t have a handy app or pledge page for this; just raising a thought. Maybe we could start small (it’s usually best, in my old-lady opinion) by listening more. Literally.

There are all kinds of ways to start. Anything, I think, can be a start, provided you’re bringing a loving intention to it.

Me, I’m going to go out and meet up with some people this week. Some old friends, some new ones. Maybe even some weird ones. (It’s L.A., so definitely some weird ones.)

Because I have a silo, but I live in a world. Your world, my world, our world…


*On the other hand, if you’re opting for the Filet-o’-Fish rather than ripping someone’s head off and crapping down their neck, your future self thanks you, as does mine. It also gently and lovingly suggests you bring some attention to this “solution,” and start exploring alternatives.

UPDATE [1/10]: A lucid, thoughtful, somewhat charged (he’s blunt, folks!) piece by Jon Armstrong on the genesis and implications of the Giffords shooting; his wife Heather Armstrong also has a short but very touching post on what I think is one excellent way to move forward.

UPDATE [1/11]: Another excellent piece by Penelope Trunk on the role mental illness played both in the shooting and the tragic story of Bill Zeller. Link to Zeller’s lengthy, sad and well-written suicide note via the previous link, or this MetaFilter post, or directly on this Gizmodo post and Zeller’s site (as of this writing, anyway). My favorite takeaway from this horrible series of events came from a comment on the MetaFilter post:

The best I can do with something like this is to remember to always be nicer, because you truly never know what someone may be dealing with inside.

If I could make just that change, I think I could call this a live well-lived.

UPDATE [1/12]: Via Jeffrey Zeldman on Twitter, a very sharp op-ed in the NY Times on the role fear plays in all of this, and a reiteration that this is not a left/right issue, but an issue of thoughtful engagement vs. fear-mongering, isolationism and other insalubrious human tendencies.

Image by sillygwailio via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Yes. Something related that I’m thanking god I remembered today: all the beings (that happen to be getting on my nerves) are just seeking happiness, by whatever means they have at hand. Some skillful, some less so. But striving, just like me.

  2. Excellent piece, rich with good stuff. Thank you. I especially love what you might call the “Future Self Hack for Evolving and Making Good Decisions”.
    You also reminded me of something which I learned in a class on substance abuse (treatment, not how to:). I looked it up just now to get it right. This particular explanation is from the website for Dual (Diagnosis) Recovery Anonymous, but obviously it is valuable for all of us.

    H.A.L.T. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired
    “This tried and true slogan helps us to stay in touch with our feelings and needs. Sometimes the onset of anxiety or a sudden drop in mood can be traced to our having forgotten to eat so our blood sugar levels are off kilter. Sometimes we may be carrying a resentment, or feeling lonely, or we are just too tired. Taking a little time out from our busy day to ask ourselves if we are feeling too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, gets us in touch with our feelings. When we know what we are feeling we can make choices and take the appropriate action to get our needs for food, companionship, or rest, met.”

  3. First, THANK YOU, Amna/Cyndie/Tom for leaving feedback on this particular piece. It was one of the more complex things I’ve taken a run at lately, and under less than ideal emotional conditions I can’t get into right now.

    Anyway, individually:

    @Amna: HOLY CRAPNUTS. That is just the most helpful, succinct way of putting it. Generous, expedient, and light. Love it. Thank you x 1,000,000.

    @Cyndie: H.A.L.T. link much appreciated. I’ve blathered about the trick/hack/process before, without really *knowing* it. So this is awesome.

    In other news, I find myself staring at that last line and wondering why they left out the corresponding “cure” for anger. Because it’s so wretchedly complex? Because it’s an opportunistic, add-on condition? Just struck me for the first time that there are hungry, lonely and tired, all easily fixed, and then BOOM, anger.

    Well. I deal with it mostly these days with elaborate self-talk, often accompanied by physical action: a walk, a ferocious cleaning of the cooktop. Getting a lot more exercise and enjoying a much cleaner house these days.

    @Tom: I do exaggerate for comic effect, of course. I do not think of myself as old—really! I think that is one of the weird secrets that gets revealed when you get your membership card: you still feel like you’re x years old. For me, x will always be 10. I am 10, I am 10, I am 10. But suddenly, 10 plus 40!

    Anyway, thank you. Important to stay clear on these subjects, esp. this one, as there is just so much b.s. talk/thought about age in this culture.

  4. I’m 12. Always shocking to realize I’m not. Would you be up for a guest post on related subject & Conscious Stewardship in Feb. when I launch my new thing about just that?

  5. I love this one, Colleen. Talks right to my heart. When I throw my aggression onto this planet, however justified I might feel, I know now beyond all doubt that it’s no less polluting than that single-use plastic. No more rhetoric and no more blaming…I now want to be in the chorus singing solutions, like your entry today. Along side this, Daniel Goleman’s book, Destructive Emotions, offers all sorts of useful, empirically-validated ditties for how high-octane feelings get their grip and what to do about them (hint: he studies Buddhists). On another note, I hope your less than ideal emotional conditions are short-lived, my friend. Thanks for this piece. I needed it.

  6. Colleen,
    Thinking of one’s future self when making choices, even minute ones, is an excellent idea and, sadly, one that hadn’t occurred to me. I needed you, for that. Anyhoo, something tells me she will come to my awareness quite a bit in the future. I mean the near future. You know what I mean.

  7. Colleen, this post really resonates with me as I have been thinking a lot about the “future Stephen” a lot since Thanksgiving. My Lovely Bride and I took a 10-day vacation starting then to re-connect, recharge, and make some big-picture strategic decisions about 2011 and beyond. It was harder than I thought it would be because I hit 41 that week too. Without achieving some of the things that I had always thought I would have by then.

    Thanks for sharing this, and if you don’t mind I may do some riffing on it at my Journal later this week. Especially this part: “There are all kinds of ways to start. Anything, I think, can be a start, provided you’re bringing a loving intention to it.”

  8. I have a really long story behind this comment so to quote Indigo Montoya: “Let me splain… no’s too long. Let me sum up.”
    Yesterday I EXPLODED at my husband after he had the nerve to get just a little high and mighty (just a TEENY bit) with me for causing a wreck with our van because I was on my cell phone.
    BAH! I hung up on him. Then he called back and I SCREAMED at him for about a minute and he did not even get mad or anything (he might have clued into my being in shock).

    However, no excuse. I deserve his righteous indignation for being an a-hole in the car, smashing up our van and someone else’s car too. He did NOT deserve my wrath.

    However, on the other side of that yelling match came a realization: lately, he and I have been really nice to each other and laughing a lot more about things instead of being testy.

    And I only noticed it because after I screamed at him, he just came back with an apology and I calmed down and apologized and left that anger at the curb.

    Here’s what I am thinking about as I read this AWESOME post which I so love and need like a week to digest: We all need time to learn how to be with each other.

    But very little of our experiences are allowing us time to learn how to be with each other.

    We are a hit and run, fast-food, I got something for what ails yah and multitask until you die society.

    It’s easier to REACT when you haven’t a history with someone, don’t have social or cultural understanding, or don’t feel invested.

    Remember small towns and families? Remember “community?” The side effect of knowing people and really being with them is that we are then forced to becoming responsible for the way we act around them.

Comments are closed.