Posts

Discipline is freedom

This is not a prescription for how to live your life. This is not an attempt to explain some human truth. It’s not an argument for some political aim. It’s not even an endorsement of Jocko Willink’s new book, Discipline Equals Freedom, whence I took the title.

It is none of these things because I am not qualified to pontificate on such subjects. I’m not sure anyone is, but what I know of the world and the people who inhabit it is so superficial and incomplete that such pronouncements would necessarily be only the weakest stitching together of the findings of professionals far more learned than me.

It is an exploration of a concept I have been finding to be true, and the successful (so far) implementation of this concept in my life.

Those of you who have been following this blog will have noticed that I have recently taken quite a liking to the lectures of Dr. Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He often expounds upon the methods that he has learned through his own life and through his practice as a clinical psychologist to improve one’s wellbeing.

At the core of these methods is one simple idea: stop doing things that make you weak.

These things include lying, pursuing instant gratification, comparing yourself to others, assuming that you have nothing to learn from someone, and even slouching.

These things are easy. They are often very natural. We lie to protect our reputation, a survival skill that was essential when the best way to know about a person was from tribe gossip. We chase what is expedient because it feels good to get that hit of dopamine when we eat a sweet treat or find that thing we’ve been shopping for. We measure ourselves against everyone around us because its how we determine our place in the hierarchy, a crucial process for the smooth functioning groups of apes like ourselves. We don’t listen to others because it would make us challenge what we already think we know, and we don’t sit up straight because it takes effort.

Actually, overcoming all of those things takes effort. It’s hard to fight biology. It’s not pleasant. But it’s exactly what makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom. We can fight our desires and emotions in order to pursue things that will give us greater satisfaction later.

And it’s exactly what Jordan Peterson and Jocko Willink are tapping into with their life rules. You can call these “rules for success”, but really they’re just rules for happiness. Contrary to what my nose tells me when I smell baking cookies or what my tired brain is telling me when I want to waste the day watching YouTube, giving in to urges does not lead to satisfaction.

I’ve had to deal with this recently because elevated levels of anxiety over being unemployed, starting a new job, living at home, and generally feeling directionless have led to some bad habits. As my diet and fitness routine fell apart, I not only lost the physique I had been so proud of but had started to see that lack of discipline creep into other parts of my life that were making me more irritable, more stressed, and less happy.

I had a series of false starts (probably cataloged in the blog), but a few things have conspired to shape what may lead more permanently upward. Most directly was discovering the motivation of former Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink. After his discussion of his new book in the stead of the host of the Tim Ferriss show pushed me through a morning workout, I set this track as my alarm. I’ve popped out of bed at 5:00 am for the longest streak I think I’ve maintained since I returned home.

With LCDR Willink’s stereotypically terrifying warrior voice and the enlightening teachings of Jordan Peterson, I have resolved to start taking steps. First off, I have committed to getting my diet back in order. It’s not where I would like it to be, but I’m moving in the right direction. Thinking about cutting sugar and alcohol from my diet (at least 6 days a week) immediately sparked a feeling of anxiety, an unjustifiable feeling of missing out. I have had the feeling since I was in Poland that I need to take advantage of things while I can because I will never have the opportunity again. In such a great brew town as Fort Collins, refraining from beer most of the week is actually a bit of a daunting challenge. But my secret weapon was my accountabilibuddy. Even with her at a distance, my requirement to report on my adherence to my two rules (1. No distracted eating  2. No sugar/alcohol) each day has kept me honest.

And even though I’ve been to two breweries since I started, I have found that just getting a glass of water instead of doing the expected thing of ordering a beer, has not increased that feeling of missing out but dampened it. By standing by my principles (or at least my diet rules), I strengthened myself, and it felt good. Like waking up at 5:00 am to start the day with exercise, it’s a small little victory.

It’s not a victory over anyone else, but over myself. At least, over the self that I don’t enjoy being, over who I was yesterday. It’s my way of putting into practice Jordan Peterson’s fourth rule: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday.”

These small acts of discipline prove to me that I can work toward and achieve things that are hard, things that I know will bring me greater satisfaction. It liberates me from my base urges and empowers me to drive my own life.

It has proven to me that discipline is freedom.

Advertisements

What could I have done?

I stood there in disbelief, munching a spoonful of black beans as I leaned against the railing outside the cafe. The gentleman had kindly dropped off a colleague and was now slowly backing his small sedan out of the diagonal street parking. Fully turned around, staring out the back windshield, he eased backward ever so slowly. Those parking spots are notoriously dangerous to get out of because it’s almost impossible to see oncoming traffic. Fortunately, traffic had stopped at the light. Unfortunately, the line had backed up, and the red SUV was stopped directly behind him. Really, directly behind him. There was no way that he didn’t see her. It was only when the SUV shuddered, and a little burst of dopamine shot through my brain as the thunk of the two vehicles colliding satisfied the moments of expectation.

Don’t get me wrong, I felt bad for the guy. Apparently, he was off the hook; it looked like the woman told him not to worry about it even though there was noticeable damage to her rear passenger door. But I know he still felt like an idiot. A few hours later now, his nerves are probably still on edge, and he’ll be beating himself up for days.

And I just stood there like a moviegoer, munching my snacks and enjoying the show. But what could I have done? Shouted? Run out toward him? Thrown my bowl of beans on his windshield to get his attention?

Perhaps. The whole incident took probably 30 seconds, and the car was maybe ten steps away. But I didn’t act because I didn’t know what to do. At the time, it appeared as if he was in control, as if he knew what was behind him. At the time, stopping a collision wasn’t even a thought because it wasn’t going to happen.

But it did. And in the moments after, as I watched the man curse himself back to his car, I thought about all the things I could have done, replaying the moment, trying to figure out when it would have been obvious that he was oblivious to the danger behind him.

I’m still not sure if I would be able to spot a similar situation or if I would figure out quickly enough what to do. We almost never have time to figure out the best course of action in a moment that requires action, but we have a fantastic tool in our mental kit: imagination.

We humans have the wonderful (and terrible) ability to imagine things that don’t exist and situations that haven’t happened yet. We can perform thought experiments to figure out “What would happen if …” long before any such situation arises and while we have more than enough time to figure out how to react.

How to stop a fender bender probably isn’t the most exciting or useful application of this ability, but the process is the same for any situation. Whether we are imagining two vehicles on a collision course or we are imagining a threat from a bloodthirsty attacker, it’s the same imagination, the same consideration of what could be.

But if we don’t take the time and make the effort, we will almost certainly be frozen in disbelief if the situation arises, unable to act because we don’t know what to do.

All men are not created equal

When Thomas Jefferson penned (and Benjamin Franklin revised) the now famous words of the Declaration of Independence in early 1776, he had something very specific in mind. The second half of that opening statement is not an addition to the first but a clarification.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happines.

Thomas Jefferson, as well as many of the founding fathers, understood that men (a word that we may now understand as “people”) are equal only in one respect: their natural rights. All people have the rights not to be oppressed by their government, not to be molested in their own communities, not to lose their property to thieves. A government ought to protect these rights and few others. All people ought to be entitled to these rights, and infractions against them ought to be brought to light, prosecuted, and protested.

However, this is just about the only way in which people actually are equal. In our highly individualistic society, we ought to be happy for this fact. Many of us are eager to prove our uniqueness in a world that often demands conformity. Yet when the conversation turns to such differences as intelligence, somehow we have crossed an invisible line. Why this is, I’m not entirely certain. I believe that it has to do with the idea, which has developed especially strongly in the United States, that anyone can do anything they want in life. While this hopeful idealism can be empowering in some sense, we must understand it’s limitations. Idealism tempered with realism has been the hallmark of the American identity since before the United States was even a coherent political entity.

Idealism lets a poor girl growing up in a broken home believe that she can rise above her situation and bring children into a better home in the future. Realism tells her that it’s going to take many years of hard work, constant failure, and a long series of moments in which she is almost convinced that she will fail. Idealism reassures an aging entrepreneur who has lost everything that it is never too late to start again. Realism ensures that he knows he probably does not have the energy he used to and that he’ll have to leverage different strengths than he did the first time.

Idealism also tells us collectively that we can build a better society with greater opportunities for the current generations and for future ones. Realism helps us understand that each person must find their role in that society in which they are useful, they feel useful, and they provide something that others appreciate. That role depends heavily on what each member of that society’s brain is capable of, especially in today’s technological society in which professions like law, medicine, and engineering require certain cognitive ability. This does not mean, however, that there is not a role for everyone. No matter what role one chooses – whether it be janitor or CEO – one can live a joyful and fulfilling life if they are recognized and appreciated, if their sudden disappearance would be missed.

This is the point of Dr. Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s scientific exploration of cognitive distributions (and proverbial lightning rod), The Bell Curve. The 800-page, excessively cited tome is, in fact, a bit daunting for me to have acquired a copy (and it is conspicuously absent from the public library). But I did find an abridged audiobook, narrated by Murray, himself.

If you’ve heard anything about the book but have not read/listened to any of it or read/listened to any of Murray’s other work, you probably have a misconception of the book’s core message.

Herrnstein and Murray stress again and again, from start to finish, a few important points:

  1. Simply knowing the IQ of an individual tells you almost nothing about the person, but knowing the average IQ of groups can lead to insightful statistical analyses.
  2. Though there are significant differences between the averages of racial groups (races being defined as the participants self-identify), there is so much overlap that the only appropriate way to deal with anyone of any genetic background is as an individual.
  3. The refusal to engage in conversation on the subject has already led to counterproductive public policy and will likely lead to increased extremism on both sides: those insisting that all people have equivalent cognitive ability (wrong) and those insisting that genetic differences are proof of a racial supremacy (also wrong).

The effect that the increasing value of intelligence has had on American society over the past few decades has been significant, and to ignore it is to walk blindly into a trap that will almost certainly tear our country apart even more than it already has. To what extent intelligence determines one’s opportunities and how much we can actually influence the cognitive ability of the next generation is not yet fully determined. But they will never be determined if we don’t have the conversation.

All men are not created equal. Once we accept this and have a grown-up conversation about its implications, we can get to work building a better society for everyone, regardless of their IQ.

A conversation about conversations

Aristotle once wrote that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Of course, you must also remember that Albert Einstein said that “only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.” If you are struggling to reconcile the words of the two great thinkers, just remember the wise words of Abraham Lincoln: “The problem with quotes found on the internet is that they are often not true.”

And yes, if you are paying attention, you’ll have recognized that none of those quotes actually originated with the attributed author. Their exact origins seem to have been lost in the depths of the interwebs, but I’ve shared them because they serve a useful point.

The first quote, which seems to be a transmogrification of a quote from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, has been passed around for years and probably uttered millions of times. I posit that this popularity is not a result of Einstein’s infinite stupidity but a result of the fact that whoever wrote it made a rather astute observation.

Because the source is unknown and therefore the exact original indeterminable, let’s not split hairs about the definitions of each word.

The way I understand it is that one who has been properly educated has the ability to consider and understand ideas with which they may disagree. At least, I hope that this is a matter of education and not of intelligence, which Dr. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray have conclusively shown does not change much after about the age of six.

Let’s consider for a moment the implications of this assertion. If you are able to understand a contradictory idea, you are able to understand the ideas of others, you can take seriously thoughts that have originated outside your own mind, and you can consider objectively whether or not you ought to incorporate these ideas into your own belief system. You are able to take the thoughts of others not only to regurgitate them in a manner that passes as being well-read but actually to form new and better ideas.

And isn’t this the whole point of an education? To produce minds that will generate new and better ideas that will continue to improve society? To give people the tools to make better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities? As Dr. Jordan Peterson argues, such an education strengthens the mind and helps it avoid such illogical traps as Marxism and neoliberalism.

Despite President Lincoln’s warning, we need not be immediately dismissive of even the most spurious quotes we find on the web. This anonymous author has quite a good point.

If you disagree with anything I’ve written thus far, you are certainly free to dismiss me entirely, vilify me for being an elitist pig, or simply click away in boredom. But what will you have gained? You will leave this page with the same preconceived notions that you had, no better or worse, no more fully formed, no more deeply resolute, no more able to give you strength in times of ethical quandary.

Perhaps I am wrong, and perhaps the internets should have left Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics well enough alone. But the validity of my analysis is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not I’ve had a positive effect on the conversation because it is through conversation that we determine what is true, what is good, what is right, and what is useful. If we avoid such conversations, prevent ideas from entering the conversation, or keep ourselves blind to perspectives potentially useful to the conversation, we are all worse for it.

I’m a bit saddened that we’re actually having this conversation, but sometimes we need to refresh the conversation about conversations. When we are seeing violent rebuke of conversation, we need it now more than we have in a long time.

Next time, I’ll dig more into the ideas of the controversial writers whose work I slipped into my arguments above and address the anti-speech movement more directly.

 

The freedom to speak and to listen

Earlier this year, students at Middlebury College in Vermont verbally and physically attacked author Charles Murray and his hosts after what was supposed to be a speech sponsored by a conservative student group. Murray, who has faced this kind of response since he co-authored an extremely controversial book 25 years ago, was forced to give the speech from a sound booth on another part of campus because the protestors filled the lecture hall with such a ruckus. The book I’m referring to The Bell Curve, which explores the measurement and value of IQ, the separation of classes along lines of intelligence, and the implications for American society.

I would love to go more into the book itself and the misinformed reactions to it, but for this post, I’m only using this to lead into the larger issue at hand, which has been brewing across the US and in Canada. Although I’ve yet to determine precisely how widespread this anti-speech phenomenon actually is, several cases have grabbed headlines such as the incident at Middlebury and multiple incidents at UC Berkeley.

The protesting students at Middlebury argue that they were fighting against the spread of ideas like eugenics. They argue that their protest was not an attack on free speech because it was purely a statement of preventing giving “odious” ideas a platform.

While this could easily devolve into an ad hominem rant, I will refrain. What can be said, though, is that the movement to suppress controversial ideas is coming almost entirely from what people like Sam Harris like to call the “regressive left“. Members of the movement often argue that to give speakers like Charles Murray or Milo Yiannopolous (even though those two people have little in common except their reviled status among university students) would be to promote ideas that are abhorrent to modern liberal values.

Canada has been drawn into this mostly by University of Toronto professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson. He pushed back again a university initiative that gave seemingly excessive permission to students to challenge professors for not being precisely respectful to transgender students. Dr. Peterson has since become outspoken about the post-modernist roots of the anti-speech movement. In his synopsis, it comes down to the idea that dialogue cannot lead to understanding because each person’s experience is too different for people truly to understand each other. Therefore, people of different opinions must be silenced (or at least not given a platform, which if taken to its logical conclusion, is silencing them).

I haven’t spent enough time with anyone who actually holds these views to understand if Dr. Peterson’s interpretation is accurate, but it seems to capture the sentiment of anti-speech mobs and postmodernist campus groups that fight “dangerous” or potentially harmful speech.

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Peterson isn’t the point. I disagree with a lot of what he says, and I think he has many underlying biases that cloud his reasoning. However, I love listening to him because he has interesting (if controversial) ideas. If you want to attack those ideas, please do. Actually, just send me a message (geoffrey.desena@gmail.com) or tweet at me (@geoffreydesena) because I would love to have the conversation.

And that’s the difference between the resistance from those like Dr. Peterson and the resistance from anti-speech groups. He is not fighting the person, the speaker, or even the speech. He is fighting the idea because that’s how the best ideas come to the fore. When we pit the strongest form of two ideas against each other, we do not get destruction; we get even better ideas.

That was a bit of a mess, but it will serve as a primer for some more coherent thoughts on The Bell Curve, Jordan Peterson, and controversial ideas.

Resolving the Paradox

How far are you willing to go for a cause you feel strongly about? Whether it be human rights, animal rights, science education, helping disadvantaged youths, protesting corporate expansion, or protecting the partula rosea snail, how far are you willing to go? Are you willing to dedicate several hours a week? A day? How about completely rearrange your life? Would you give up your car? Your favorite food? That exotic vacation you’ve been saving up for?

I’m willing to bet most of you would struggle with those decisions. I certainly do. What about a cause you’re not particularly passionate about? Would it really even be a decision?

Is it even feasible for you to give up your car, eat only locally sourced plant-based foods, buy only sustainably sourced clothing, and turn your heat off all winter (or a/c off all summer for those in hotter climates)?

Probably not.

Yet, so many of the sustainability advocates I know focus almost entirely on the human aspect, complaining that “if only people would change, we could solve global warming!” But could we really?

No. I’m sorry, but that’s not the answer. We can only put so much responsibility on the consumer. Ignoring the fact that most people simply cannot significantly lower their carbon footprint while still living a life any modern industrialized Westerner could call a reasonable existence, our attempts at getting people to change their way of life are utterly futile.

The only answer is to make living a sustainable life easy. Unless you have a good way to restructure global infrastructure so that no one has to drive to work (or to any of the places that they actually like to go), you’re not going to get rid of cars (or even buses and trains, which also require huge amounts of energy). What we can do, though, is work to make it easier and less expensive for people to drive electric or hydrogen-powered cars. We can work to expand renewable energy so that those cars can run on cleanly generated electricity. We can support new farming practices that reduce the amount of required fertilizer and experiments to make meat alternatives that meat lovers actually want to eat (or meat grown in a lab that doesn’t gross people out!). We can support research into batteries and aerospace engineering that will make electrified flight possible, and we can promote the development of hydrogen-fueled cargo ships.

These projects do not require changing minds, manipulating people, or otherwise fighting human nature. These are technical challenges, and humanity has shown an immense capacity to surmount such obstacles.

So pick your cause. Make the change in your life that promotes something you believe in, but don’t expect anyone else to get on board. Work to make it easy for them to contribute. If we make it easy enough for people to live sustainably, they might not even notice that they’re doing it.

Our Eternal Paradox

In the final chapter of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, she writes, “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.” On the first pass, I thought this line was conspicuously trite for an author who had filled the preceding 260 pages with engaging story-telling and a rationally objective presentation of evidence. Her patient and cool tone throughout the book leaves the reader coming to the undeniable conclusion that we are deep in the throes of a rapid extinction of species throughout the biosphere. Her tone becomes more empathetic toward the end, and perhaps this is why I had the impression that she had resorted to tossing such as a cliche progressive phrase as “what matters is that they change the world.”

However, the fact that this line struck me as so incongruous with the rest of the book made me go back and read it again. It was only on this second pass did I recognize that she was not being trite; she was stating an obvious and unavoidable fact. We are changing the world, whether intentionally, ambivalently, morally, ethically, or otherwise. We cannot live without having an impact on our surroundings.

Take even the process of my writing this. I am typing on a computer that was charged by electricity generated mostly from the burning of coal and natural gas. That same electricity powers the lights in this library, and that natural gas is heating the building. I was only able to read Kolbert’s words because a massive logging campaign that felled thousands of trees, making the operation economically feasible enough for copies of these books to be widely distributed, probably on trucks burning diesel fuel. I can only guess at the environmental impact that it took to harvest and process the cotton that makes up clothing and keeps me warm even on this frigid November day.

Even as the sustainability-obsessed, eco-friendly, greenie, environmentalist that I am, my life is not without impact. I try to limit my meat consumption, but I haven’t taken that to the point of putting myself at odds with my parents who so graciously feed me in my post-graduation unemployment. Even the vegan diet which I have been on and off for the past couple years is not completely devoid of impact. No, I don’t have a car, but I did ask for my dad to drop me off closer to my destination while he was on his way to work. The extra energy that the vehicle used to carry my extra weight, and the time idling in and accelerating from the parking lot where he dropped me off caused a negligible but not immeasurable addition to the emissions of the morning commute.

My intention in these actions is not to destroy the ecosystem that supports my cozy modern life, but they are unavoidable. Indeed, to be successful in having no impact on my surroundings would require that I simply lay down naked in the cold and slowly die.

Of course, there are some who see this simple fact that we inevitably have an impact on our environment as evidence that humans are a blight on the surface of the Earth and should simply all disappear so that the world can get back to its natural order. But that sentiment is rather presumptive, and the logic is circular. If you define “natural” as the state of the world without humans, and your objective is a natural world order, then of course, your ideal is a post-anthropic world.

Yet, I go back again to the words of E.O. Wilson, who wrote, “Every morning, I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Most who do care about improving the state of our world tend to stop here, immobilized in indecision or on the path to nihilistic defeatism. However, the second half of the quote is the more important: “But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.”

If we are to allow our discerning minds to focus too heavily on the separation between man and the rest of nature, we find ourselves trapped in an inability to recognize that we are not a disease of nature but simply a part of it.

Wilson and Kolbert are both exactly right. Without us, there is no savoring, and thus no reason to save the miracle of life on Earth. But at the same time, we cannot persist and savor this world without having an impact upon it. We are, it seems, trapped in an eternal paradox.

Never forget what you are – part 2

Today’s featured image: a throwback from the gallery of Sveinn Michaelson, a real Viking whom I had the honor of accompanying on a couple of his photography expeditions. See more of his work on Flickr

I started this whole thing with the assertion that I am a deserter, a flake, and an abdicator. While that is not strictly speaking true, to those who have honorably served in harm’s way and completed their agreed term of service, it certainly appears that way. Understanding that perception is reality, I am better served by simply accepting these monikers and doing my best to prove that the decision to request separation from active duty has led to other forms of service.

Yes, the motivation to publish this is purely selfish, but hey, it’s my blog, so I can be as selfish as I want. In all honesty, though, this whole situation is a bit complicated and warrants a full explanation, but much of my life is that way. I don’t expect people to understand, but it’s worth a shot.

The first part of this ended a bit abruptly. I had just explained how I had literally stumbled upon the opportunity to study renewable energy and chart a new course in my life. That hardly makes a compelling story for why I’ve actually committed to this career. I quit the Navy after only a year in the fleet, and I moved to slip out of my teaching agreement in Korea after only seven months. I’ve only been working on this career move in earnest for about a year. What’s to say I won’t just change my mind as soon as I find an employer and realize that it’s not what I had imagined?

To answer that challenge, I’ll start doing drugs. I mean, I’ll start my explaining drugs. Not that I know from experience, but the concept is illustrative. Just follow me for a bit.

I recently read an article that explained some of the scientific experimentation on the effects of psychedelic drugs like LSD. Even though they were highly controlled experiments in a laboratory setting, many of the subjects reported that their experiences were literally life-changing. There have been many reports of depression patients finding new meaning in life after an experience with psychedelic drugs. Many religious practices around the world have incorporated hallucinogenics such as peyote. There is significant evidence that these chemicals unlock another state of consciousness that people do not encounter under normal circumstances. I have heard that experiences with psilocybin (magic mushrooms) induce to a state of connectedness with the universe that leads to mind-opening realizations about life and our relationship to the outer world. Indeed, this may be the reason psychedelics like peyote have worked their way into religious practices and rites of passage. What I want to show, however, is that these experiences do not require the ingestion of chemicals.

Many people who are avid practitioners of meditation have criticized this approach as cheating. For many, the attainment of such a state during meditation is seen as a real turning point in the practice, but it often takes years worth of time in a meditative state and hours upon hours of solitary silence. Realizations such as seeing through the illusion of the conceptual self, the meaninglessness of life, and the inextricably interwoven nature of man and universe often come through such practice. They leave a deep and lasting mark on the psyche of the practitioner. This “scar” is deep in the mind; it takes hold in parts of the brain deeper than rational thought. Reason can lead us to many good (and bad) decisions, but usually, it is our limbic brain (the primitive brain) that guides our decisions. It is the source of those “gut feelings” and snap decisions. It is the reason we prefer one thing over another when we can’t explain why. It doesn’t control language, so we just “feel” that something is right even when we can’t say why we feel that way.

I am actually new to meditation, and I have never experimented with psychedelic drugs, but I understand the feeling that these people have described. I experienced it while witnessing a natural phenomenon in Iceland.

I arrived on the east coast of Iceland in mid-December 2015 after seven weeks of solo travel across Asia and the Nordic countries. I was exhausted, but I wanted the story to end with a bang. I was looking for some crazy adventure. I had collected a handful of incredible stories over the preceding two months, but I really wanted to get myself into trouble on the last leg of my roundabout journey home from Korea. I left myself with only a half-hearted attempt to hitch a ride from Seyðisfjörður to Reykjavík. To get the basis of the story, see On Being. Alone.

The end of that story never made it into the blog. I wrote the ending, but I knew people wouldn’t understand, and I thought that it would do the experience an injustice. I spent much of the summer writing a novel-length lead-up to that moment, but it’s going to take some more time to get that version to a publishable state. Here’s the synopsis:

After being stranded in seyðisfjörður, I found myself alone with a clear winter sky near enough to the Arctic circle to warrant a hunt for northern lights activity. After literally running out of the small town to get away from the street lights, I scrambled my way up a mountainside to look north over the opposite fjord wall. When I realized that the haze above the ridge was the ghostly illumination of the aurora, I was hit with a rush of emotions that launched my brain into a wholly unimaginable state. It felt like my body released its entire store of hormones and chemicals for every emotion I had ever felt in one rush of overwhelming shock. Excitement, fear, disbelief, reverence, love, joy, sorrow, and awe all hit me simultaneously. My brain was not ready for the experience, and that is why it was exactly the moment I needed it.

The preceding weeks of adventure, the year of breaking away from a former life, and the ongoing pursuit of a higher purpose combined to leave me vulnerable to such a moment. I would spend the rest of the long winter night walking up the valley road, eyes glued to the sky, captivated by the dance of lights above me. In those hours, I came to the realization that this world is more powerful than we can imagine. Mother Earth has been patient with Her unruly guests, but that patience may be wearing thin, and we are not prepared for Her wrath. This is not the logical conclusion of careful reasoning; it is not the thesis of years of scientific research. It is an understanding deeper than the superficial activity of my prefrontal cortex. It is a revelation that has emerged from the depths of cognition, an idea that has consumed and come to define me.

My opinion of and behavior toward the rest of humanity is a debate I still wrestle with and a topic for another post, but I understand on a level as deep as my unshakable love of efficiency and need to be involved in a cause bigger than myself that any hope I have for a livable future world depends on society’s ability to survive climate change. It will take not only the rapid and complete shift away from polluting industries and energy sources but also the development of an energy system on which we can rely when those antiquated energy sources fail.

I’m still not completely convinced that this objective is even possible, but our only options are to give it our best shot or give up and enjoy our gluttony until the planet mercilessly rids Herself of this parasite.

If you are a potential employer in renewable energy, first of all, I’m honored that you’ve suffered my ramblings thus far. Secondly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make any greater impact by going it alone, so I’m hedging my bet by working through the typical channels of the loathed hiring process in the hope that the most efficient use of my skills will be as a cog in the machinery of an established renewable energy development company.

Even though the Geoffrey DeSena of 2014 is literally not the same person as the person writing this, the society sees the continuity of my being and makes its decisions based on it. Past performance is not a perfect predictor of future performance, but people are creatures of habit. Someone with a habit of giving up on big commitments will likely continue to flake, abdicate, and desert in the future.

I’ve written this story in my defense. Yes, I have turned back on some big decisions, but that also says that I have a habit of refusing to waste my life on pursuits that I don’t believe are the best for me. I will never forget what I have been – an abdicator of responsibility, one who has reneged on commitments – but I will also never forget who I have become. I have become a man dedicated to the pursuit of a global energy revolution. I have become defined by the belief that our continued existence is contingent upon the development of systems that work with the ecosystem we have emerged out of. I have even had inscribed in the skin I will carry for the rest of my life a reminder of the moment that I came to these realizations. Every morning when I jump in the shower, I will see this rendition of the ribbons of light that danced above me in Iceland when my mind entered a state most often reached with the help of mind-opening drugs.

tattoo

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the past three years has been the development of the confidence in the fact that anyone who refuses to accept the decisions I’ve made in my life is not someone whom I want to work with. I would rather live on the streets, subsist on the most meager of diets, and give up the basest of comforts while I search for a community in which I am enabled to pursue my life’s mission.

Call me a deserter if you must. Though my decision to leave the Navy was only a request granted by a panel of senior officers, I do take responsibility for making the request only a year into my five-year commitment and understand perfectly well how my decisions reflect on my character. However, you must know that I have called myself worse and whatever slur is thrown at me, I now wear it like armor. It cannot be used against me.

Never forget what you are, part 1

Today’s featured image: a rainbow over Fort Collins. Spotted this beauty as I walked up the driveway after going hiking with a couple friends.


Last week, I convinced my parents to try watching Game of Thrones (again). Though I can’t see myself getting back into the series at this point, I know they enjoy such series, and it was one of the few that really pulled me in. However, I made the mistake of reading (actually, listening to) all the books, so now the show is rather unsatisfying.

But there was a great line in the first episode that I have remembered ever since the first time I was introduced to the show four years ago. As the Stark family entertains the guests of the king with a raucous feast in the great hall of Winterfell, the Stark bastard, John Snow, takes out his frustration of being an outcast on a straw enemy in the stable. The equally outcast dwarf of the Lannister family, Tyrion, brusquely (and rather drunkenly) makes his introduction to the bastard, calling John Snow “bastard” to his face, multiple times. The Imp knows how to get under a man’s skin, and John Snow is noticeably enraged. But his intentions are good. Tyrion is not picking a fight but recognizing a fellow outcast. He is teaching  John Snow a valuable lesson. He then delivers this line that has stuck with me all these years:

“Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

So, what am I? What pejorative could be slung against me? What failure ought I wear like armor?

Deserter. Runaway. Abdicator. Flake.

These terms can fairly be levied against me. Though it can surely be inferred from a careful perusal of the archive of this blog, I have never plainly and publicly told the story of my decision to request separation from active duty service. As I struggle with direction and the motivation to regain the traits I had incorporated into myself over the past three years, it is a good time to prove to myself that I have come to terms with this decision. Though my thought experiments of late have indicated that I did make the right decision, I can never truly know what would have happened had I chosen to stay.

Here is the rundown, in the plainest and sincerest terms:

It was late spring of 2014, and I had finally begun primary flight training at NAS Whiting Field, just outside of Pensacola, Florida. Though it had been a year since my graduation from the US Naval Academy, upon which I had accepted a five-year service obligation, I had only participated in intermittent training. The Navy was downsizing and short on funds for training. There was a surplus of young officers like me. Some of my friends on ships were doing made-up jobs because the captain had no real work for them. I used the time to think about life, ethics, politics, and purpose. When my real training finally started, I had come to fear the commitment that I had so excitedly signed under a few years earlier. Because I had chosen to go to flight school, my commitment would not be just the minimum five years. Upon completing flight school (still two years away), I would be indebted to the Navy for eight more years.

When my real training finally started, I had come to fear the commitment that I had so excitedly signed under a few years earlier. Because I had chosen to go to flight school, my commitment would not be just the minimum five years. Upon completing flight school (still two years away), I would be indebted to the Navy for eight more years. That meant that I would spend at least a decade in uniform, doing the bidding of US government, fighting their wars, supporting their agenda, spreading their message. By the time I could legally turn back on this decision, I would be 33 years old. For a 23-year-old, fresh out of college, 33 was deep into life, too far down the line to do the adventurous things young people ought to do. It felt as if that time would be taken from me, the most exciting years of my life sunken in drudgery, marred by the anxiety and stress of military service. What once had excited me now terrified me.

At the same time, my relationship was faltering. I had bought a house with my high school sweetheart and fiancee. We had started a proper life together. Two cars, a kitten and a puppy, a mortgage, full-time careers; on the surface, it was the ideal American life. Underneath, we were suffocating. She struggled with the adjustment, and I didn’t know how to help. She didn’t understand my obsessive tidiness around the house, and I didn’t understand her need for recovery after the stress of her own budding professional career. Our communication was strained, sex infrequent, and ideals in conflict. I began to think that we might be better off going our separate ways.

Little did we know, we had both been thinking the same. She told me one afternoon that she needed to go back to Colorado to see her family. She also told me that she didn’t know if she should come back. I tearfully agreed, grateful that she had the courage to say what I could not.

In all honesty, I can’t remember the order of events, but at just about the same time, I called a meeting with my flight class’s advisor, a senior lieutenant and flight instructor. I didn’t want to talk directly with my instructor for fear of giving him the impression that I was going to give up mid-flight. I told him that I was considering dropping out of flight school.

In the Navy, flight training is a voluntary option. If you don’t think you can hack it, you’re free to “drop on request” at any time, but there’s no going back from that decision. In normal times, a stack of papers summarizing your career called a “package” will be brought before a board of senior officers, who will decide what your new job will be. These were not normal times. That year, about three-quarters of those going before the board were being separated, i.e. released from active duty service. I knew this. It was an open door, and I decided to try my luck to go through it.

At the time, I didn’t understand what I was really seeking, but I knew that there was something in my life that was missing. I had grown up with a clear vision of myself in uniform. I had spent the most formative years of my life engaged (though not always faithfully) to one woman who, I believed, would be my partner for the rest of my life. Based on all I had heard from my parents, friends, and teachers, this was exactly right.

But there is a fundamental flaw in this life plan: I knew nothing of the world outside my sheltered upper-middle-class American life except what I had seen in books, images, and the occasional family holiday. I knew nothing of the world or its people, who they were, who I was.

I struggled to articulate this sentiment, but I could feel it. As I explained to my class advisor and later to my instructor and the squadron commander, I felt that I needed to see the world from outside the military machine, on my own, as an individual. Even as I said the words (especially as I said them), it felt like a cop-out, an excuse, like giving up. I knew that it sounded like I was simply giving in to the stress of flight training, and it didn’t make sense to my instructor. I was doing well. I had easily coasted through ground school, receiving perfect or near-perfect scores on every exam. I was weeks ahead of many of my classmates in learning my emergency procedures. Though I was far from ready to take the aircraft alone, by my fourth flight, I was handling nearly all the flight planning, radio calls, and navigation on my own. Landings were still giving me trouble, but my hours of nightly rehearsal was paying off. My instructor didn’t understand, and he was very disappointed, but I knew it in my bones, on a level that words could not yet express.

I crafted a statement to submit to the commanding officer. In it, I did my best to express the need to experience the world, but I also acknowledged that I understood the commitment that I had agreed to. I wrote sincerely that I would serve to the best of my ability in whatever capacity the Navy needed me to for the remainder of my five-year term, but I could not face the fear of a decade of naval aviation.

When I was pulled out of flight training, I was reassigned to the student services office to handle the paperwork of all the aviator hopefuls coming through after me. As I processed names of friends, classmates, and fellow USNA alumni who had graduated a year after me, I started to waver. I began to look into other options. I knew I couldn’t go back to flight training, and I didn’t want to, but I also didn’t want to live with the regret of reneging on my agreement. I found the Aviation Engineering Duty Officer (AEDO) training command on the other side of the training wing’s parking lot. It seemed to be a nice compromise. I could apply my aerospace engineering degree, serve my commitment, but be free in half the time. I started collecting letters of recommendation

I started collecting letters of recommendation for my package. Three of my favorite professors at the Naval Academy (and one from my exchange at the Air Force Academy) penned the kindest words about my competence in engineering, my intelligence, and my character. One of them was Captain Robert Niewoehner, a living legend in the test flight community. He was the chief test pilot for the development of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, an aircraft that has become the backbone of the Navy’s airborne strategy. He was also my instructor for my two favorite classes. His words would almost certainly get me anywhere I wanted to go.

Unfortunately, where I wanted to go did not involve wearing a uniform, not a flight suit, not even utilities. The day before the package was due, I dropped it on my supervisor’s desk to be sent off first thing in the morning. That night, I sat in my slowly emptying house, alone on the floor by the couch that had become my bed since Luisa left and I could not bring myself to sleep in our bed. In the silence, a sudden rush hit me, and I pulled my computer to my knees to type out a new cover sheet for my package.

I couldn’t go halfway. I would be torn. I couldn’t serve with the lingering sensation of “What if…?” I had already pulled the trigger to get myself out of my service obligation, and I was going to ask for it boldly. I restated my willingness to remain in service if ordered to do so, but it was not my first choice. I arrived early that morning. My supervisor had not yet arrived. I replaced the form that had placed AEDO in the top slot with an identical piece of paper that shifted my preferences down, putting “Separation” in its stead. I removed the letters of recommendation and ran them through the shredder. I laid the envelope back on the desk, just as it had been but to carry an entirely different message.

There were no classes coming through that morning, and the briefing room was empty. Having stepped out of the office to leave my colleague to suffer the boredom alone, I sat in the dark, empty room with a scrawled message on the notepad before me. After perhaps the twentieth time rehearsing the message, I dialed the saved number of my former instructor and mentor. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but it was the right thing to do. He deserved to hear it directly that I would not be passing on his letter of recommendation and that I would be asking for the Navy to forgive me of my commitment.

His reaction was exactly what I ought to have expected: disappointed. I sat rigidly, head on my hand, choking back the tears as he lectured on the value of commitment and integrity, on how he could no longer trust me to do what I said I would do. I agreed quietly and accepted my deserved scolding, but the deed was done; the decision had already been submitted. That was our last correspondence.

The discussion with my parents was surprisingly easier. I actually could not tell them directly that I had asked for separation. I wrote them a letter detailing my need to go be a typical twenty-something for a while. Given their fervent support and beaming pride at all I had done in uniform and their proud announcements of my plans for patriotic glory, I imagined that they would also be disappointed in my decision. Their support, though, never faltered. In fact, they were a bit relieved. They trusted that I would continue to make them proud in whatever goal I decided to pursue. It has been a driving factor in my ensuing success. I know that whatever path I choose, it is my devotion to doing it to the best of my ability that makes them proud.

The Navy was also very gracious. Not only did they grant my request for separation (as they did for most of the others that month), they allowed me to remain on their payroll until the end of the year. I worked a few days a week at the student services office. The other days, I worked to figure out what the hell I was going to do next.

I considered becoming a software engineer. I had gotten into programming in my engineering education, and I knew it was a lucrative, portable career. I considered culinary arts; I had recently taught myself to cook and loved the idea of one day running my own kitchen. I tossed around the idea of putting my writing to work as a journalist.

Whatever I would do, it had to be completely different. I wanted nothing to do with the Navy or airplanes. I didn’t really even want to stay in the US. I started looking for graduate schools in Europe to study international affairs, but my engineering degree wasn’t helping. I had picked up an obsession with Czechia, and I had even begun learning Czech.

And then the advertising got me:

“Have you ever dreamed of walking the cobblestone streets of Prague on your way to work each morning?”

Yes, actually. I dream of that every single day.

By the end of the week, I had taken advantage of the military discount to start in the next class to get my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. It didn’t take me straight to Prague, but Seoul was a good place to start. They offered me a good contract with about the highest salary a first-year teacher could expect, and it was about as far away from the USA as I could get.

I still remember the feeling of stepping into my first class in the run-down KeonDae branch of the SDA language schools. I was nervous but excited. I did exactly what my military training had taught me: pretend like I know what I’m doing. It worked. I quickly fell into the role. My history as a grammar-nazi came in handy as my students challenged me on the endless and arbitrary complexity of the English language. I loved the feeling of helping students learn what they wanted to learn.

But let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to be a passable English teacher. It was fun, but it wasn’t my passion. I had started working toward other careers. I had begun blogging for the recruiting company that got me hired. I took online classes in journalism and academic writing. I continued the search for graduate programs to bolster my background, hoping that the blogging and freelance writing would be enough to complement my technical background.

And then I woke up. I had been scrolling through a list of master’s programs in the Europe. Once caught my eye just before I stepped off the train: Renewable Energy Engineering.

How had I never thought of that? I get so enraged when people deny man’s role in climate change. I have a perfect background to develop such technologies. This is a cause with truly global consequences. 

As I walked home, I became infected by the idea. It would come to define me. Yes, that’s an Inception reference, and that’s exactly how it felt. Thinking through the requirements of such a career path and discussing it with my good friend T’ew (who just visited me and my family in Colorado over the past few days) brought me to the obvious realization that this effort to run away from everything that had once defined me was a fool’s errand. Not only was it impossible, but it was the most cowardly way to handle the shame of having left the Navy.

The American taxpayer had invested upwards of $300,000 in my college education that had instilled in my not only academic prowess but also values of integrity and teamwork, skills like public speaking and organization, and non-cognitive traits like confidence and willingness to fail. I could never repay them for this investment, but that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t supposed to repay them. I was supposed to use what I had been given.

Military service may not have been the best way for me to utilize these skills and attributes, but it was up to me to find another way.

I’ll continue this story later, but I need to get to bed right now. My life starts again tomorrow. I’ve been struggling with the motivation to do things right recently. I’ve struggled to maintain the focus on why I do what I do, mainly because I haven’t had much to do to remind of that purpose. I’ve been slowly scrapping together things to do, but rebuilding a life is a slow process, and I’m young and impatient. I’ve decided that I’m going to use what time I have in Fort Collins to build the local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-profit organization that works to encourage Congress to implement a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend policy. Tomorrow, I need to prepare a presentation for a fellow environmental group.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: