I have a complicated love affair with the water. I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult. Well into my twenties, I carried the kind of unreasonable fear of water that you do not have if you learn to swim as a child. A considerable part of my enjoyment of the water lies in demonstrating to myself, over and over, that I have conquered my mortal fear. I am a decent swimmer, but I also know my fear has not completely disappeared. When things go wrong in the water, I easily panic.

After several dips, I decided to take one final excursion – this time around the edge of the bay. I felt happy and wonderful and fit; the water was calm. I suspected some of the best snorkeling lay around the edge of the rocks, two hundred fifty feet away. There were no signs posted that warned of any danger. With a good lunch in my stomach, I felt I could easily swim around the edge of the bay and back. I briefly thought about donning a life jacket and flippers, but decided against it. The life jacket would slow me down, and flippers don’t allow for the kind of maneuverability I like when I am snorkeling over a shallow reef.

The moment I got into the water and headed for the edge of the bay, I knew I had made the right decision to swim without a life jacket or flippers. I felt strong and good. I had done a lot of swimming that day already and was surprised at how smoothly I was kicking through the water. The trip would be child’s play; the way I was feeling, I knew I could easily swim well past the edge of the bay. I struck out purposefully to the lip of rocks. I imagined seeing myself from the deck chairs back on land, disappearing from view around the rocks.

The water felt suddenly cooler as I rounded the lip of the bay. It felt pleasant… My legs and arms felt stronger than ever. Each kick took me several feet; my technique was better than I remembered. I lengthened my stroke, feeling the pull of cool water against my torso. I felt graceful. Without realizing it, through steady practice, I had become a very good swimmer. I felt proud of myself.

I pivoted and started to kick my way back. A particularly lovely piece of coral lay just beneath me. But as I watched for it to go by as I swam past, the coral did not budge. I kicked again and again. It was as though I were swimming in place, stuck with invisible glue to a single spot. My fear of the water, long dormant, opened one monstrous eye.

I instantly realized my grace and skill on the way out had not been grace and skill at all. I had been riding an undercurrent. I would now have to fight it on the way back. The reef did not look beautiful anymore. The water looked too deep. No one on land could see me. Why had I not worn a life jacket? How insane not to have donned flippers. I kicked and pulled and kicked and pulled. I was working much harder than before, but I was not traveling several feet with each stroke; each effort bought me mere inches. My breathing in my own ears sounded labored, a huge pair of bellows shouting over the din of the sea…

I lived the usual sedentary life of many urban professionals; my athletic exploits were mainly weekend heroics. What had made me think I was really fit enough to swim out so far when I had already exerted myself so much that day?

Unconscious bias influences our lives in exactly the same manner as that undercurrent that took me out so far that day. When undercurrents aid us … we are invariably unconscious of them. We never credit the undercurrent for carrying us so swiftly; we credit ourselves, our talents, our skills. I was completely sure that it was my swimming ability that was carrying me out so swiftly that day. It did not matter that I knew in my heart that I was a very average swimmer, it did not matter that I knew that I should have worn a life jacket and flippers. On the way out, the idea of humility never occurred to me. It was only at the moment I turned back, when I had to go against the current, that I even realized the current existed.

Our brains are expert at providing explanations for the outcomes we see. People who swim with the current never credit it for their success, because it genuinely feels as though their achievements are produced through sheer merit. These explanations are always partially true – people who do well in life usually are gifted and talented. If we achieve success through corrupt means, we know we got where we are because we cheated. This is what explicit bias feels like. But when we achieve success because of unconscious privileges, it doesn’t feel like cheating. And it isn’t just the people who flow with the current who are unconscious about its existence. People who fight the current all their lives also regularly arrive at false explanations for outcomes. When they fall behind, they blame themselves, their lack of talent. Just as there are always plausible explanations for why some people succeed, there are always plausible explanations for why others do not. You can always attribute failure to some lack of perseverance, foresight, or skill. It’s like a Zen riddle: If you never change directions, how can you tell there is a current?

Most of us – men and women – will never consciously experience the undercurrent of sexism that runs through our world. Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine. We may have our suspicions, but we cannot know for sure, because most men will never experience life as a woman and most women will never know what it is like to be a man. It is only the transgendered who have the moment of epiphany, when they suddenly face a current they were never really sure existed, or suddenly experience the relief of being carried by a force larger than themselves. The men and women who make this transition viscerally experience something that the rest of us do not. They experience the unfairness of the current.

Shankar Vedentam, in The Hidden Brain via brainpickings

There is another side to life. The side in which we don’t do, but just be. Sleep best represents this side of life. We cannot control our dreams; so often we appear in them other than we wish to be, or fear we are. It’s what I loved most about drifting in and out of sleep as a child: the sense that I was falling apart, my acting and willing self collapsing under a curious influx of thoughts and fantasies whose provenance I couldn’t figure out. By day, my life had to be purpose-driven; by night, it was reigned by mystery. The night life seemed all the more wondrous for its ungovernability.

How Did Sleep Become So Nightmarish? - NY Times Sunday Magazine

I give myself permission to just make for the sake of making without any thought to the outcome, which can be surprisingly hard. … What I would tell my younger self is this: There is no “right” way to make art. The only wrong is in not trying, not doing. Don’t put barriers up that aren’t there – just get to work and make something.

Painter  Lisa Golightly via brainpickings


Still there. Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone. 


Still there. Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone. 

"Mad people and people who stand alone and burn. I’m attracted to them because they give me permission to do the same."
Susan Sontag on love, via Society6

"Mad people and people who stand alone and burn. I’m attracted to them because they give me permission to do the same."

Susan Sontag on love, via Society6

After War, A Failure of the Imagination

“I COULD never imagine what you’ve been through,” she said.

As a former Marine who served in Iraq, I’d heard the sentiment before — it’s the civilian counterpart to the veteran’s “You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.” But this time it struck an especially discordant note. This woman was a friend. She’d read something I’d written about Iraq — about the shocked numbness I’d felt looking at the victims of a suicide bombing — and it had resonated. As a survivor of child abuse, she knew feelings of shocked numbness far better than I did. And yet, midway through recounting some of what happened to her as a young girl, she said it again: “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to compare my experience to yours. I could never imagine what you’ve been through.”

It felt inappropriate to respond, “Sure you could.” I’d had a mild deployment. She’d mainly have to imagine long hours at a cheap plywood desk in a cheap plywood hut in the middle of a desert. True, there were a handful of alarming but anti-climactic mortar attacks on my forward operating base, and the wounded and damaged bodies I saw at the trauma center, but that was all. Her childhood, though, was full of experiences I couldn’t have handled as an adult, let alone as a child. And what was particularly bewildering was that, even as my friend was insisting that what I’d been through was beyond the limits of imagination, she never once told me, “You aren’t a victim of child abuse. You couldn’t understand.” She wanted me to understand. At the very least, she wanted me to try.

I know an airman who suffered a traumatic brain injury during training just a few years after being in a car accident where he watched his twin brother die. When he tells people about the T.B.I. and the accident and his service, he invariably gets the “I could never imagine” line. “It makes me angry,” he told me. Sure, he wants to say, you don’t think you could understand, but what if I want you to?

It’s a difficult spot to be in, for both. The civilian wants to respect what the veteran has gone through. The veteran wants to protect memories that are painful and sacred to him from outside judgment. But the result is the same: the veteran in a corner by himself, able to proclaim about war but not discuss it, and the civilian shut out from a conversation about one of the most morally fraught activities our nation engages in — war.

The notion that war forever separates veterans from the rest of mankind has been long embedded in our collective consciousness. After World War I, the poet and veteran Siegfried Sassoon wrote, “the man who really endured the war at its worst was everlastingly differentiated from everyone except his fellow soldiers.” During World War II, Hemingway called combat “that thing which no one knows about who has not done it.” After Vietnam, Tim O’Brien claimed that a true war story can’t even be told, because “sometimes it’s just beyond telling.” Given the way American history, unlike Iraqi or Afghan history, allows for a neat division between soldiers who see war and civilians who don’t, it’s not surprising that the idea has taken root.

When I returned from Iraq, people often asked me what it was like, usually followed by, “How are we doing over there?” And I’d tell them. I’d explain in bold, confident terms about the surge and the Sunni Awakening. The Iraq I returned from was, in my mind, a fairly simple place. By which I mean it had little relationship to reality. It’s only with time and the help of smart, empathetic friends willing to pull through many serious conversations that I’ve been able to learn more about what I witnessed. And many of those conversations were with friends who’d never served.

We pay political consequences when civilians are excused or excluded from discussion of war. After all, veterans are no more or less trustworthy than any other group of fallible human beings. Southern veterans of the Civil War claimed the Confederacy was a noble lost cause. Nazi leaders who had served in World War I claimed that the German troops had all but won the war, only to be stabbed in the back by civilians in thrall to Jewish interests. The notion that the veteran is an unassailable authority on the experience of war shuts down conversation. But in a democracy, no one, not even a veteran, should have the last word. 

The problem is compounded on a personal level. If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable then survivors are trapped — unable to feel truly known by their nonmilitary friends and family. At a recent Veterans Day performance put on by Arts in the Armed Forces, Adam Driver, the organization’s founder, a former Marine turned actor, spoke of his feelings of alienation after leaving the corps. “Not being able to express the anger, confusion and loneliness I felt was challenging,” he said, until theater exposed him “to playwrights and characters and plays that had nothing to do with the military, that were articulating experiences I had in the military, that before to me were indescribable.”

It’s a powerful moment, when you discover a vocabulary exists for something you’d thought incommunicably unique. Personally, I felt it reading Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim.” I have friends who’ve found themselves described in everything from science fiction to detective novels. This self-recognition through others is not simply a by-product of art — it’s the whole point. Hegel once wrote, “The nature of humanity is to drive men to agreement with one another, and humanity’s existence lies only in the commonality of consciousness that has been brought about.”

To enter into that commonality of consciousness, though, veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical. Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.

- Phil Klay, NY Times