The Art of Thinking Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The other night I got into a pointless argument with someone after they decided to leave a comment on one of my older posts telling me that I should have my head examined. (A fair point in retrospect.)

She said that Trump is a true American unlike Biden who is a horrible person. Naturally, she went on to say the election had been rigged.

Now, I should have ignored it. I should have said, “I’m sorry you feel that way”, and left it at that. However, the ego couldn’t resist the bait.

Partly because it wants to understand the other side. Mainly because it wanted to stand up for the freedoms she, herself, enjoys.

And so, this was me: 

I love that comic.

Anyway, while I think it’s important to engage with people you disagree, you can’t teach a pig to sing. And you really shouldn’t bother. It’s the equivalent of beating your head against a brick wall. 

“Are you listening ego?”

“Yeah but, it just feels so fucking good to be right.”

“But all you’re doing is validating your own opinions while strengthening the oppositions. All you’re doing is deepening the divide. Can’t you see?!”

“Yeah but listen, I really was right!”

“I hear you ego, but your need to be right is part of the problem.”

“But…”

“No ego. Sit down.”

“But…”

“I said, SIT DOWN! That’s a bad ego!”

(Whimpers)

“There’s a good ego.” (Starts stroking it again.)

Of course the result of that pointless argument was as you’d expect. Despite my best attempts to engage her with some deep thinking she resorted to juvenile insults. So I stopped trying, realising that I might as well have been having a conversation with a rock.

A particularly mean rock!

Still, there was a lesson there for me. One that got me thinking about an analogy I read recently between the two different types of thinkers in this world. The rock place thinkers and the hard place thinkers.¹ I believe this idea might just help you separate the birds from the bees, or the pigs from, well, the non-pigs.

Let’s see what you think.

ROCK PLACE THINKING

“What luck for rulers that men do not think.”

– Adolf Hitler

Rock place thinking simplifies life.

It gives you a nice, simple, black and white world-view. There is no grey when it comes to rock place thinking. Things are either good or bad. It puts us into one box and others in another. It says a tree is a tree, that love is “all you need” and drugs are bad.

Most “isms” fall into rock place thinking. They are immovable (hence rock) beliefs such as Nationalism, Fascism, Communism, Fundamentalism, etc. 

Now you might think that rock place thinking is a bad thing, but not necessarily. All of us use rock place thinking to a certain degree. The reasons is, rock place thinking allows us to shore up self-esteem. It gives us a secure footing on which to stand. It helps us make sense of a nonsensical world.

If I didn’t call a tree a tree, I’d have to call it a tall, green, branchy, leafy thingy. Which would be closer to the truth, however, I think you can work out why our brains take certain shortcuts

Rock place thinking is also useful in certain situations and professions. As it happens rock place thinking is very useful for a pilot. If X happens, I will do Y. It helps provide us with a set of contingencies for dealing with specific normal and non normal scenarios.

So, rock place thinking certainly has a place. 

However, problems arise when people take their rock place thinking to be absolute. This, especially as it relates to one’s political, religious or cultural world views, often results in a tribal us versus them mentality.

Unfortunately for some, their entire life’s meaning is based on their rock place world views. And for them, those beliefs really are immovable. That’s because the alternative – considering the possibility that what they believe might not be true –  would be to feel the entire world give way beneath their feet.

That really is a hard place to be. 

HARD PLACE THINKING

“If you see through yourself you will see through everyone. Then you will love them.”

– Anthony De Mello

Hard place thinking is hard for a reason.

It takes the view that there is no black and white, only grey. It takes the view that what is good or bad is largely subjective. It looks at a tree and understands that “tree” is merely a label. It understands that drugs have a place and that love can blind you.

The good news is that hard place thinking is malleable. Hard place thinkers are willing to admit when they were wrong. The bad news is, hard place thinking hurts… A lot!

That’s because hard place thinking challenges our deeply held rock place beliefs.

You see, the beliefs that we hold dear are what give our lives meaning. That meaning is derived from upholding faith in those beliefs. By upholding the values we believe in, we gain psychological security. This is what builds self-esteem. If I start to question those beliefs, I start to question the very meaning of my life.

That is extremely anxiety provoking.

What we’re really doing by challenging our beliefs is challenging our ego. The problem is, the ego is a stubborn motherfucker that desperately wants to survive. It wants to survive because it believes that’s the best way to protect you.

However the ego also understands that it will have to die one day. So, in order to cope with this mortal terror, it clings to the beliefs that validate its existence.

It thinks along the lines of, “Even though I will die one day, that doesn’t mean my name has to!” Or, “If my name can’t live on in any meaningful way, then at least the country, religion, political party or football team can!”

It’s this coping mechanism that has led to the paradoxical situation we’ve seen repeat itself throughout history – where the very beliefs that people use to buffer ones mortal terror, become the very things they are willing to both die and kill for.²

Of course the only to way to see through one’s beliefs is to do some serious hard place thinking.

For example, a hard place thinker who has been brought up to believe in one particular God might eventually come to the conclusion, that because there are over 4000 different religions on this planet, that perhaps his or her religion isn’t the only true one. He or she might even conclude that all religions are wrong in detail, but that they all point to something important. 

This doesn’t mean one has to abandon his or her beliefs entirely (although it can lead there), just that they have allowed themselves to consider the possibility that they, themselves, might not posses the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This helps them to transcend their own beliefs which, in turn, fosters greater compassion and tolerance for those with different beliefs as well.

The problem with hard place thinking, as already stated, is more to do with self-esteem.

Hard place thinkers tend to be less sure of themselves. They tend to second guess themselves to the point that it paralyses them. So, often they don’t stand up for what is demonstratively right.

The other struggle comes from feeling they aren’t part of anything important. Many hard place thinkers have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that life, ultimately, holds no meaning at all. That it really doesn’t matter how they spend their life. 

In some cases they lose their footing altogether, and so they hit rock bottom.

THE SPACE IN BETWEEN

So, on the one hand we have the seductive, black and white rock place world views that make us feel good about ourselves and our place in the world. The problem being those rock place views are always crashing against reality. In the extreme, this can lead to a desire to smash other people over the head with those views in a desperate attempt to rid the world of “evil”.

On the other hand, we have the painful process of engaging in some hard place thinking that makes us feel like our entire existence is meaningless. Even though this leads to a softening of our own beliefs that, in turn, fosters a more compassionate world view.

So, how are we suppose to think between a rock and a hard place? How can we shore up our self-esteem while maintaining a world view that promotes greater tolerance for others and acceptance for impermanence?

Here’s what I think.

I say you pick up a chisel and start chipping away at those rocks. While this is extremely unsettling at first, I believe it gets easier over time. A bit like building muscles in the gym. At first we break down the fibres in our muscles. This hurts. In the short term it makes us weaker. But then the body fuses those fibres back together even stronger.

Regular hard place thinking is the equivalent of building some badass guns for your mind. Eventually, your mind becomes more resilient as you break the ego down and build it back up again – repeatedly. You build it back up upon a deeper truth. A deeper truth that not only understands more, but also comes to understand there is no absolute truth.

That truth – that there is no absolute truth – becomes a kind of rock place belief that makes you bullet proof. It allows your ego to take hit after hit. You become comfortable in the knowledge that you don’t know anything (and you really don’t). This allows you to sit in space between your thoughts. Suddenly you’re flying outside the clouds looking in, not trapped inside incapable of looking out.

I also have a theory that if you can spend enough time in this space, you might just find something that know no amount of thinking will ever take you: Paradise.  At the very least, I believe this realisation should prevent you from having a pointless argument with a complete stranger online.


Footnotes:

  1. The idea for the two different types of thinkers came from the book: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski.
  2. For more on this topic I suggest you look up something called Terror Management Theory. I can also highly recommend reading The Denial Of Death by Ernest Becker.

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You can find more of AP’s hard place thinking here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com. You can also find him sharing more of his non sensical world views on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot

The Pursuit Of Unhappiness

Apparently, most of us have a default level of happiness. No matter what our station is in life, we are all slightly dissatisfied. Slightly. Life is just never quite good enough, even when it really is.

This default happiness level readjusts depending on your circumstances. Even if something significant happens to you, like winning the lottery, you soon get over it and return to that base level of slight dissatisfaction.

Luckily this works in reverse too!

If you have a divorce, for example, or end up in an accident that leaves you paralysed — studies have shown that although your life on paper becomes worse, you readjust. Shit feels awful for a while, but then get used to this new normal. You accept it — sort of — and move back to your default level of happiness.

“I can’t use my legs anymore, but I can still binge-watch NETFLIX every evening like I used to!” Or, “I don’t have a smoking hot wife anymore but, you know, there are other less attractive fish in the sea. Ones that won’t steal my stuff. I’ll settle for one of those!”

That’s the spirit!

The reason for this is simple: survival.

It’s not the best strategy to be content with life. Otherwise, we’d stop chasing after that next promotion or that bigger house. We’d stop securing a safer existence for ourselves and our family — even if we already live on a luxury yacht!

It’s for this reason that our egos keep tricking us. It tells us, if you get that next promotion, or have sex with that smoking hot chick, or save enough money for that fast car, then you’ll be happy. Then you’ll achieve the kind of bliss that everyone else on Instagram clearly has.

And so you go after those things like your life depends on it.

But what happens when you actually get those things? When your hopes are realised? Of course, you’re happy for a time. That’s for the memory bank to remind you that more is better. But then what? That’s right, you get used to it! You get accustomed to your new sports car. You get over the fact that you had mind-blowing sex with that hot chick. You get used to the fact that your new house has 8 bedrooms, 2 tennis courts, and an infinity pool.

Once you do, you’ll find yourself back in that familiar default setting of life is okay-ish. Not bad, but it could be better. “I mean, It’s not like I have the fastest sports car in the market, right? And if I’m honest, she was only an 8 out of 10. Plus, I’d quite like a bigger fucking boat!”

The obvious problem, for those canny enough to recognise this ego trick, is that it’s never enough. 

Happiness — the lasting kind at least — can’t be found through the pursuit of happiness. It’s like looking for gold at the end of the rainbow. You’ll never find it. There is no mountain high enough, no river wide enough, no luxury yacht big enough.

The other, less obvious problem, for those canny enough to see the bigger trap here, is your default setting has been adjusted to this more manageable level of existence. And this, I’m afraid to say, makes you weaker. It makes you softer because your default level of happiness is set against this higher standard of living. As a result, minor things start to bother you a lot more. You say, “Unless that waiter brings me the finest quality champagne, I’m gonna lose my shit!” Suddenly it becomes much harder to maintain that baseline of moderate happiness (or unhappiness as the case may be).

In gaining the world, you start to hate it.

As a pilot, I have the added perk of traveling in business class at a fraction of the price that most people pay, provided spare seats are going on a given flight. Is it a great thing? I enjoy business class, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think about it much anymore. That’s because I’m used to it. Instead, I find myself thinking about how great first class looks. I think, “If only my company would let me fly in first. Of course, business class isn’t bad, but, you know, it could be better.”

There I am, back to that default setting. (Spoilt brat, I know…)

But here’s the real kicker. When business is full and the only seats going are in economy class, well, then woe is fucking me! (Please don’t fuck me woe, not again!) What is normal and ok-ish for the vast majority of people has become a kind of hell because of my privilege. My privilege has made me weaker. It’s like that saying, once you go… (You know what? I’m not going to finish that sentence.)

This is the paradox that comes from making life easier for ourselves. We actually make it harder. Similarly, by chasing happiness, we end up finding less of it.

Now I’m going to ask you a question. I use this example only because it makes sense to me personally. Here it is: Why did you have kids? Why do you want to have kids?

To make you happy?

Ha!

Sorry, that one slipped out. But seriously, if your reason is/was to make you happy, you need to sit down and have a rethink.

Kids make everything more complicated. Everything.

There’s a lot of research that suggests couples end up unhappier after having kids. I can vouch for that. Having kids was a rude awakening. It was a shock to my admittedly delicate system. And it didn’t make me happier having them. At least not initially. (There’s a fat dose of honesty for you.)

Changing nappies 8 times a day, being pissed on, rocking them for a goddam hour at 4 am, only for them to wake up the moment you place them in their cots…! Finding any which way to settle the little bastards. (I love them, really.)

If you haven’t felt an overwhelming urge to throw your baby out of the window at some point as a new parent, well, you’re not honest. That’s why, if you want to have kids, you have to really really want them. You also have to be very clear about why you have children.

Because if your why is in the pursuit of happiness, they will make you miserable — they will drive you insane. Then you might actually throw your children out the window. Of course, that would be bad. Very very bad. (I have to keep telling myself that.)

So why would you have kids then?

Well, the same reason you might decide to climb Everest or chose any challenging endeavor. For a sense of fulfillment, to help the world raise a more virtuous and responsible generation, to help you grow as an individual…

You have children because it gives your life more meaning. You do it for love, as cliche as that sounds. You don’t do it for your happiness. Don’t do anything for your happiness. Fuck your happiness. I mean it. 

Ok, no, I don’t. What I mean is fuck looking for your happiness. The only thing that’s guaranteed in this life is pain. Happiness is never guaranteed. Never. You should write that on a billboard and hang it on your living room wall.

My first child forced me to reconcile with some dark inner demons. The moment I was candid with myself and realised that his wellbeing depended on me sorting my own shit, well, everything changed. Seriously. Everything. I sought therapy for his benefit. I did it for his happiness, and in the process, ended up finding my own.

Right there is the trick. What’s your why? That’s always a great question to ask yourself. If your why is happiness, you can expect unhappiness. If your why is to serve something bigger than yourself, well, then you’re actually on to something. Because the genuine pursuit of happiness is found in the pursuit of meaning through pain.

If you pursue meaning through pain, you’ll find the small stuff stops pissing you off. You’ll also find the everyday stuff that everyone takes for granted becomes a kind of paradise.

Suddenly you’ll look down after a long day in which your kids pressed every button — a day in which your nerves were utterly shredded. Despite that, you kept them alive. Not only that, you helped them grow. You also realise that you didn’t completely lose your shit this time. You notice that you also grew as a person. You realise that all that pain you suffered through gave you something no amount of money ever can. And as you look down at your kids, who are fast asleep, in a seemingly mundane moment, you suddenly feel something akin to happiness, but it’s not. It’s something more significant than that.

What you’ve found is peace.

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You can find more of AP2’s writing here athttps://pointlessoverthinking.com

The Secret Ingredient Missing From Every Conversation

That’s the most liberating, wonderful thing in the world, when you openly admit you’re an ass. It’s wonderful. When people tell me, “You’re wrong.” I say, “What can you expect of an ass?”

S.J. Anthony de mello – SOURCE: AWARENESS

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey – SOURCE: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The vast majority of conversations consist of two people trying to have their egos validated by proving that one is right and the other is wrong. Often both will agree but even then, in most cases, what they agree is that others are wrong and they are right.

This is a special, saucy kind of conversation where two individuals stroke each others egos instead of their own. “Oh stop it.” “No you stop it.” “Reowww!”

It’s all based on the egos insatiable appetite to be right. To try to make sense of a world it can’t possibly make sense of. To place everything into neat little boxes. So we can get a tick with an A+ next to it.

Well done Timmy you passed the test! You’re 100 percent right! Any other option would have been wrong but you got it right! This is exactly how the world works!

The problem is so many of us have been raised to look at the world through this black and white lens where we’re taught that right equals good. Right equals success. Right equals smart and capable. Whereas wrong equals failure. Wrong equals incapable. Wrong equals dumb.

It’s this kind of thinking that has made being wrong so difficult for so many of us.

It either threatens our identity as being smart and capable or confirms it as being dumb and incapable. In both cases we find being wrong so incredibly painful we avoid putting ourselves out there at all costs.

The question is how do we protect ourselves against this form of thinking? How do we protect against having a fixed mindset?

Well one way is to consider that every single thought you’ve ever had, every thought that anyone has ever had, is in some way, shape or form, wrong. To consider that there is no black or white, only grey.

If you look deeply enough you’ll see this is true. That we are always wrong in someway, shape or form. This argument itself can be picked apart on so many levels.

The reason is there is no possible way you, or anyone else, can know everything there is to know about anything. The world is simply too complex.

The sooner we can see how deeply flawed the ways in which we think are, the sooner we can let go of our limiting beliefs and more forward to slightly less limiting beliefs.

Equally the sooner we can get to grips with the idea we know next to nothing – the more comfortable we can become in not knowing. This actually, paradoxically, promotes curiosity and learning. 

It does this by helping us to understand that there is always something to learn. Always some area in which we can grow and get better. Equally it keeps our egos from feeling threatened by the idea that it’s wrong. As a result we become less afraid to learn and ask questions. We become less afraid to put our hands up and ask stupid questions.

This way of thinking promotes a growth mindset.

So next time you have a conversation with someone I suggest dropping all notions of, or attempts at, being right. Instead I invite you consider simply trying to be a little less wrong than you already are. Not only will this put you in a willing mindset to learn, it will allow you take whatever someone else has to say with a huge pinch of salt.

Thanks again for reading everyone. I’m curious what tactics you might have for cultivating a growth mindset? How do you keep an open mind? As always I welcome ALL thoughts and opinions. I will always take it with a pinch of salt.

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You can see more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com

The Shameless Nature Of Pride

As the dust settles on the US election my feeling is not jubilation. I’m not happy that 70 million people still find Trump an acceptable leader. I’m not happy that a man whose flagrant disregard for the safety of his fellow Americans has cost hundreds of thousands their lives. I’m not happy that in death, the Trump campaign still has the audacity to attack the freedoms that millions have died for. I knew it was coming, but it still hurts. It hurts enormously.

I broke down and cried when Biden won. A cocktail of difficult emotions coming to a head following weeks of anxiety, depression, anger, shame, hatred… I’ve felt them all this year but not as acutely as I had in the 2 weeks preceding. In the end it was too much. 

The question I have is where do we go from here? Biden is a gift during a year that’s been desperately short of them, but it doesn’t detract from my feeling that we are nowhere near where we need to be. We cannot continue on our path of wilful ignorance. We cannot continue to turn our attention away from one another or from the marginalised of society. We cannot continue to let our fear get in the way of doing what is right. We must bring greater integrity back into our lives. We must live for our values, not our pride

We must also start finding common ground and working together. For me that common ground has to be the freedoms for which democracy stands. However we have a massive problem if we can’t agree on what reality is anymore. Perhaps this is the larger consequence of our vote 4 years ago? Where we have become so desensitised to lying that we are willing to accept it as fact. Where we are willing to believe whatever we want because it’s easier or because it’s more interesting – because the “facts” exist to support any cockamamy conspiracy theory out there. 

We’re clearly addicted to the drama. It feels like we want life to one big conspiracy. In the process we have isolated ourselves from our own reality. In much the same way we refuse to accept the parts of ourselves we dislike, we have pushed the other side away. But in doing so we have only given them strength. We have only deepened the divide. Eventually we will reach a breaking point where we can no longer avoid the other side – those parts of ourselves. In that moment we have choice. We can let pride seal our hearts or let shame break down our egos. 

As I write this tears are rolling down my face. I look at my 2-year-old boy and my wife who is pregnant with our second. I think about what I want my children to understand as they grow up. I desperately want them to understand that decency and character matter. That the truth and honesty matter. That morals and integrity matter. That responsibility matters. But I also want them to understand just how much forgiveness matters. This is where I have been failing. 

The truth is I find it difficult to forgive those who still support Trump. And I get it. I understand why it’s the right thing to do. However it’s far easier to say the right thing than to do it. And let’s be honest, would you be able to forgive those who voted for Trump had he actually won? If you’re a Trump supporter do you forgive me? It’s much easier to forgive someone when you don’t have to sacrifice your pride. I recall that I wasn’t in a very forgiving mood four years ago. Maybe this is why so many of us refuse to accept the outcome? Not because we can’t accept reality but because we can’t forgive? It occurs to me that pride holds way more value in our society than honesty. It also occurs to me that I must swallow mine if I’m to forgive those I disagree. So let me do it. Let me say how truly sorry I am. Let me admit my shame publicly. 

4 years ago I didn’t vote. I’m not talking about the US election. I’m not American FYI. I’m talking about the Brexit referendum in the UK. I didn’t pay attention living here in Hong Kong. I naively assumed we would never leave the EU. I assumed I didn’t need to go through the trouble of voting. Then I watched in disbelief as we voted to leave. And then, as if to teach me the cruelest kind of lesson, I watched on as the rest of the world seemed to follow. A series of backwards political movements that followed me home, culminating in the loss of autonomy here in Hong Kong. A loss that has meant a genuine fear of what I can say publicly. A fear that now has me writing under a pseudonym. And now I watch on in horror as the very legitimacy of voting comes under attack in what might be one of most treacherous acts from a sitting president in the history of American democracy. All for the sake of fucking pride.

And it is pride that Trump has successfully used against me. He understood that pride can be used to stoke the fires of rage and hatred in my heart. In all our hearts. And he has. He’s made me angrier than any other politician, or indeed few other people, ever have. I believe this is the main reason I cried when I found out Biden won. There was a part of me that needed to be broken down. There still is. That needs to mourn the passing of a previous self. The part that thinks it’s somehow better than others. The part of me who is unwilling to forgive those for the same mistakes I’ve made in my own past. For being human. So for my arrogance, for my wilful ignorance, for ignoring the other side, for avoiding the difficult conversations and for my pride, I am deeply sorry. I will do better.

Let me finish by telling you about the shame I’ve felt since that period in my life 4 years ago. What I’ve learnt from it and why I’m owning it now. Shame is demonised in our society yet pride is glorified. I call bullshit. Pride is a means of avoiding shame. Often the very shame we need to feel in order to change – to become a better person. Shame isn’t the bugbear that everyone makes out. Of course you shouldn’t cling to it. You need to forgive yourself, but I believe you do need to feel it. You need to process it. Shame allowed me to really see the error of my ways. It allowed me to see why I must never take my freedom for granted ever again. Why I must protect it for my children. Shame has undeniably made me a better person. 

Of course I understand that pride has its place and that shame for the wrong reasons is very damaging, but if you asked me to swallow one and accept the other – if pride came in form of a red pill and shame in the form of a blue one (you’ll have to excuse my choice of colours) – I would swallow my pride. I would choose to feel shame. It’s by far the harder choice. It’s not hopeful or inspiring like pride is. It’s difficult. It’s brutal in fact, but it hurts because it’s meant to. That’s what makes you change. That’s what makes you a better person. Right now, if you care about freedom and democracy, at the very least, I believe you need to swallow the red pill as well. 

Thanks for reading everyone. I might have given you a bit too much to chew on there! I also appreciate many of you might have had your fill of politics recently… Still I’m curious to get your thoughts on the relationship between pride and shame. Do we use pride as a shield – as a way of avoiding shame? As a means to avoid reality even? What do you think? As always I welcome ALL opinions and thoughts. And please don’t worry – all is forgiven.

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You can see more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com