The Weird, Scary and Ingenious Brain of Maria Bamford

via the New York Times Sunday Magazine

This, she is saying, is the agony of O.C.D., the skewed sense of cause and effect that first began to plague her when she was about 10. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.2 million adult Americans contend with some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s not uncommon for the symptoms to appear during childhood. Bamford is patient when explaining the particulars, aware that when she jokes about having wanted to chop up her family into bits or imagining what it would be like to lick a urinal, it can make her sound weird and also scary. But she makes a distinction: It’s the thoughts that are weird and scary, not the person. And while most of us are prone to having fleeting notions that would qualify as inappropriate, in the mind of someone with O.C.D., they are more likely to lodge themselves and repeat. The thoughts don’t tend to inspire action, only fear. It’s like having a homegrown terrorist in the brain.

Paradise or no paradise, I have the very definite impression that the people of this vicinity are striving to live up to the grandeur and nobility which is such an integral part of the setting. They behave as if it were a privilege to live here, as if it were by the act of grace they found themselves here. The place itself is so overwhelmingly bigger, greater, than anyone could hope to make it that it engenders a humility and reverence not frequently met within Americans. There being nothing to improve on in the surroundings, the tendency is set about improving oneself.

- Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

Most every one has known one moment in his life when he felt so good, so thoroughly attuned, that he has been on the point of exclaiming: "Ah, now is the time to die!" What is it lurks here in the very heart of euphoria? The thought that it will not, can not last? The sense of an ultimate? Perhaps. But I think there is another, deeper aspect to it. I think that in such moments we are trying to tell ourselves what we have long known but ever refuse to accept—that living and dying are one, that all is one, and that it makes no difference whether we live a day or a thousand years.

Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.

So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.

Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.

Anna Quindlen, in A Short Guide to a Happy Life: On Work, Joy, and How To Live Rather Than Exist - via brainpickings

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