2016 in review: the year of loss

I started 2016 with a brand new job that I love, in a field that I really enjoy, with my own office (huge windows!), and pretty decent coworkers. The year 2016 was a big, successful step in my career. I bought a house, too, and locked in a low rate just before the Fed (et al.) finally raised the interest rate. It’s a nice little home in an established neighborhood near an area of excellent development, so I’m reasonably set to enjoy rising property values. I completed some courses and finished some books that had been on my list for a while. I even did a bit of art.

In many ways, this year was a success. But other things happened that left permanent scars. These marks are now, irrevocably, part of who I am. But don’t think that I end the year with a gloomy disposition and a bitter heart. Mingled with the sadness there is a greater hope.

The first half of the year was spent agonizing over my decision to separate myself from friends who had been a huge part of my life in the previous year. I formally left their fellowship because the leadership was engaging in behavior that would have been construed by unbelievers as sexual immorality. Although this knowledge was public, it took me a long time to consciously acknowledge that the situation was so reproachable. I think this was due to confirmation bias: I was refusing to believe the evidence that there was a serious flaw in my group of friends. I really, really loved my time with them. I didn’t want to believe there was an issue so reproachable that I might have to separate myself from them. It took many months, but eventually I did come to terms with what I had to do for the sake of the name of Christ. With guidance from my church, I made the decision to leave. Some civil conversations were had, and I am happy that I don’t regret how I conducted myself (if you know me, you know how I tend heavily toward harsh words). But I do regret that nothing much came of it. My friends acknowledged what I saw, but they didn’t call it sin, and they wanted me to have forbearance and stay. This was in May.

I spent the second half of the year in a strange state of limbo, neither in denial nor acceptance of what had happened, trying to make sense of what I was feeling. The fact of the matter was not difficult to understand: I lost most of my friends, by my own choice. But I didn’t understand how I felt about it. In this confusion I acted strangely and felt horrible. I told my friends that I wanted to remain friends, and we really did try. I invited them to things, they invited me to things. I discovered, disturbingly, that the mere thought of meeting them made me feel dread. I was so confused! These were the people I had loved seeing. We had texted every day. They had been a Godsend to me: many friends in a city where I had so few. Well, maybe they were just tired of someone that was always unhappy to see them, but they stopped contacting me. But by November I finally found words to describe what I felt.

The friends who were close to the leader displaying poor behavior did what they could to encourage change in the situation, but to me they ultimately seemed resigned to tolerate his behavior in their church. The church’s top leadership knew about it, and allowed him to remain in their fellowship without changing his behavior. I didn’t want Christian fellowship with them. I spent many months being uncertain because of the harshness of this judgment. But my church supported me in this decision; I did not take it alone or without many months of counsel. The reason at its core was simple: Christ did not die to harbor unrepented, ongoing sin. I personally did not want to be associated with it, and I did not want anyone else to think that I accepted or tolerated it. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite. Maybe I was free to leave their fellowship, but wrong to judge them for the actions (or, as I saw it, lack of action). Maybe my church leadership encouraged me to leave not because it was necessarily right, but because they thought separation was the best way to avoid adding fuel to the fire.

Confidence notwithstanding, the loss of friends made me depressed and angry for a long time. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted at work because I couldn’t stop obsessively thinking and raging. I was depressed for five months. Only in November did I finally start coming to terms with these new permanent marks on my life, and I even began to forgive. Forgive the leader, forgive my old friends, forgive myself. I remember the first time it happened, too. It felt like a cloud had passed and the world became brighter. Life had taste again.

It’s still a work in progress. I keep having to forgive and move on, and often it has to happen multiple times per day. I saw a great deal of hypocrisy in me as well (as if someone’s open and willful sin were less offensive to God than my private, less obstinate sin). I was forced to come to terms with the fact that everything that had happened, including the pain, was in great part due to my actions and my failings; I was no innocent victim. Acknowledging my need for forgiveness toward the end of the year is what finally let me begin to forgive others. He who is forgiven much, loves much. Writing this year-in-review is a part of this recovery process; it’s part record-keeping and part confession. I’m looking forward to being done with it. I have most of the answers, and am beginning to feel no desire to think on them any more. I’m reminded of this whole mess of feelings when I think of custard, and white chocolate, and pickles, and cheese. When I think of the renaissance festival, and McDonald’s, and Cookout, and houses, and night shifts, and Japan. I remember everything when I notice it’s Tuesday. Tuesday! An entire day of the week, recurring for the rest of my life! I’d like to have all of those things back without having to suffer a sudden bout of guilt and a flash of pain. The events of this year are now so deeply a part of me because I shared so much of my life with these friends. Without a doubt, this saga has been one of the most significant events of my life, and this is what 2016 means to me. I want to move on; take what I learned from my hard-earned lessons and leave the rest behind.

The year 2016 was the year of loss, but my attitude is one of hope. The fact that I can look beyond this suffering is a huge victory. And this victory is won by faith that my Father in heaven works all things for the good of those who love him. It has always been true in my life. It is a huge encouragement that I can clearly see how all my past suffering has been worked by God to benefit me, both now and eternally. I can’t see it yet, but believe that this year’s events are the same. I’m not happy about 2016, but I am hopeful that the Lord has my life well in hand and is using this for his glory and my betterment.

I wish the year had gone differently. I wish there had never been cause for division. I messed up a lot, and I’m guilty of a lot. In this coming year I just want to do right, honor God, and not be stuck in the misery of the past. Through the awful experiences for 2016 I hope that I am being transformed into a better person because of it. I hope 2017 proves it.

This blog post was originally written on December 23, 2016 and updated on February 2, 2017 with confessions of my own failures to correct the perception that I view myself as blameless victim.

Lists and lying

I accidentally harnessed the power of lists to diminish my gaming habit. When Steam has a sale and I see a bunch of games I’d like to play, I buy maybe one and put the rest on the ol’ wishlist. We all know how wishlists work: It’s a list of things you want but don’t have. And yet, something else happened, more subtle and powerful than that simple definition could suggest.

When I see a game that I think is terrific, I want to acknowledge it as such. The obvious way to acknowledge (and enjoy) is to spend time and money on it. But spending time and money… costs time and money! I want to agree that the thing is worth time and money, but I don’t want to actually pay the cost. Putting the thing on a wishlist is, superficially, to make a promise that you will eventually get to it, but it is an empty promise.

  • I recognize this is good and I want to enjoy it (but not now)
  • I’ll do it when I have time (and I don’t fill it with something else)
  • I’ll read it when I’m done with my current book (unless something else comes up)
  • I’ll buy it when there’s a sale with a big discount (unless I want a different game)

I was able to put a bunch of games on my wishlist and never actually play them. By merely making a vague promise of playing them someday, I greatly reduced my desire to actually play them! Self-improvement via lying to yourself!

I’ve also experienced the same phenomenon at the grocery store. I’ve often craved candy, but merely walking down the aisle and looking at all the options satisfied me. I think that by acknowledging the part of me that wants candy, I was able to act on the other part of me that wants to avoid it.

To use an information science word, I satisficed my desire to eat candy and play video games, either by acknowledging that those things are good in some ways, or by acknowledging that I have those desires. I’m not sure which.

But this phenomenon cuts both ways. Lists of goals have been very helpful to me, but they have also be harmful. I literally remember the day when I stopped reading like I used to: it was the day I bought two books. It was no longer “I am reading this book,” but rather, “I will read this book someday.” The former mental model precipitated ongoing present action; the latter made a weightless promise of eventual future action. The promise of future action kept me from making the effort to take present action. The attitude of “I’ll get to it… but I don’t want to decide when” exerted a negative force on my will to actually read that book.

I suppose this phenomenon can be either good or bad because humans have conflicting desires. I am a complicated person and I don’t really know how my desires work, but typing this out helped me think about it more. I theorize that if I were more conscious of how it works, I could use this phenomenon like a tool to exert greater control over my desires. I’ll have to think about it more.

Shelter

Renting is a waste of money. Mortgages make you pay twice as much as the home is worth, and your first several years are purely paying off the interest, but after those many years you eventually start to stop wasting money. So we’ll do that.

Buying an old house is fraught with peril. Could be a good purchase. Could be rotting and the inspectors never noticed. Could be a great price, or it could be overpriced; you won’t know until the market sinks and/or explodes.

Renting out a room is dangerous. People with limited liability could cause more damage than their money can cover. They’ll almost certainly generate wear and tear that you must fix. But renting out is how you turn a big house from a money pit into a money maker. So we’ll try to do that. At least until I can’t stand it any more.

What about a tiny home? I could afford to buy an expensive tenth of an acre near the middle of the city, if I could spend a mere $50,000 on the house itself. And it’s mobile, meaning I could relocate without selling the house. Not to mention, since the land is small and not worth much, there wouldn’t be a huge pressing need to sell the land in order to buy the next plot. Alas, city governments still aren’t sure whether tiny homes count as houses, so you may not be able to legally live in one. Unless I put it on a foundation, in which case it’s just a small house and not a tiny home.

Look at houses = Too big, expensive and needy.

Look at townhomes = Waste money on HOA every month like a renter. Still too big and expensive. Share walls with neighbors.

Look at tiny houses = Legally not a house, so I can’t live in one. They don’t resell. Neighbors will think I’m weird. Will probably need to trade in my car for a truck.

Look at renting = An utter waster, and expensive.

Look at room shares = Need to move my junk every year, unstable conditions, limited freedom, not attractive.

—-

If I could either find an inexpensive house or make tiny homes legal, my problems would be solved. I’m unlikely to change laws, but an affordable house is palatable, so that’s what I’m trying to do. Townhomes are not a great deal, even at a cheap price, because of the stupid monthly HOA. $180 per month is ridiculous.

Alternatively, I could reduce my junk to nearly nothing and continue room sharing forever. The moving wouldn’t be an issue any longer, and there’s a lot to be said for a $500/month rent that includes utilities.

This stuff is annoying and complicated and tiring.

Hey look, it’s time for my regular post about GOALS

You know how I love talking about goals and goalkeeping systems. I’ve made changes and they’ve been good, so it’s time to add another post about goals to the pile!

I’ve had great success in shifting my mentality of goals from must do’s to great to do’s. I find myself far more motivated by seeing the value in reaching a goal than in trying to generate a false sense of urgency. Simply put, wanting the reward of success is a better motivator than fearing the punishment of failure.

I used to think that I had to reach certain goals or else life would be bad. That mentality didn’t work because, perhaps subconsciously, I knew that it was untrue. I could do just fine by holding down a basic job, being single and playing video games. That is definitely not the life I want to live, but my life would still have value if it were. So, my attempt to motivate myself by making mandatory goals failed because I did not believe them. (Untruth is totally unappealing to me, even subconsciously. I think everyone is like that.) Furthermore, I felt bad because I failed.

My new mentality is that the benefits of reaching goals are of more worth than the cost of the necessary effort. To that end, I make goals as an attempt to bring to consciousness my values and beliefs about the costs and benefits of the multitude of decisions I could make. In other words, goals are not so much commitment as they are brainstorming. Additionally, I am free of the demotivational emotional impact of failures.

It might seem counterintuitive that there would be any motivation to reach goals without making a commitment. I guess that you could say the built-in human desire for pleasure is the thing to which you are committed. My motivation no longer comes from a desire to avoid missed deadlines, but from a desire to obtain good things. It’s a far more reliable motivation, even despite my nihilistic and stoic tendencies. There is negative and positive reinforcements, and there’s value in both, but positive reinforcement is subjectively better.

In practice, this is how I use this new mentality: I make several goals for each quarter based on overarching goals I have for my life and for the “stage” of life I’m currently in. If I accomplish them, great! If not, I discover my true belief about that goal’s cost/benefit ratio.

Either way, whether succeeding or failing to reach my quarterly goals, I do a reevaluation of both my goals and my values. It is often the case that I accomplish a minor goal but neglect a greater goal. What does this say about me and my desires? Is there something wrong with my priorities in life, or did I simply not understand the true cost/benefit of reaching those missed goals?

Following that reevaluation, I mark all my goals as completedpartially completed, or incomplete (not failed! although I do tend to think about it that way, so it’s a bit of a struggle every time) and create the next quarter’s goals. Often I carry over an unfinished goal or create a “next step” goal from a completed one. At the end of this process, I’m enabled to pursue my goals in a way that encourages me to accomplish even more, rather than being dragged down by all the things I didn’t accomplish. I recommend this mental shift from avoiding failure to seeking pleasure to anyone who wants to feel better about their goals regardless of the system they use to make and track goals.

More shaken foundations

That moment when you double-check something that you confidently started in conversation, but as soon as they expressed doubt, you suddenly were not so sure yourself. But you clung to your vanishing certainty. Now you’re anxiously searching online to verify that you were right about that fact, or that pronunciation, or that thing that has no real importance but which nevertheless currently represents your ego.

Yes, your ego. That’s what’s at stake here. You’re not keen to know a fact; you’re keen to know that you were not wrong. Why are egos so traumatized by being wrong? Because one instance of being wrong is a crack in the dam that threatens to break and whose flood will destroy their very identity. One error implies the possibility for more errors, which implies the possibility that foundational beliefs you’re built your life on may be lies.

And you would not actually feel so much anxiety if your subconscious were not aware that you do believe untruths. Like a child hiding under the blankets, you think that by not acknowledging the present problem, it does not actually exist. Head in the sand–boom, your problems are gone. It’s a defense mechanism. You can’t live life second-guessing your every belief.

But you might be able to tackle one.

Embrace the mental dissonance. Look them square in the eye. Fight them and resolve them. Because now that you know you are wrong about some things that are in your very foundation of beliefs, you have nowhere to go but up. Do the difficult thing because it will, dinner rather than later, yield abundant returns. Part of your house’s foundation had collapsed, whether you see it or not—get up, dust off, and start building.

Ants, and shaken foundations

Adventures in psychology!

I’m reading a book by Dr. Daniel Amen. It definitely has an element of self-help, although I’ll leave the negative connotation behind. Learning about how the brain and the mind work together has been fascinating, but I didn’t expect that the learning would shake my very sense of identity.

The beginning of the book concerns itself with the biological. Your mind can only do as well as your physical thinking organ allows it. Basically, only a healthy brain enables you to make full use of your mental capacities. Diet, exercise, and specific supplements and medicines influence the brain’s health.

Later in the book, practical psychiatric topics are discussed. One thing that has really caught my attention is what he calls Automatic Negative Thoughts. These are bad mental habits that most people tend to have without making a conscious effort to note and counteract them. Some examples:

  • “You never listen to me.”
  • “Just because we had a good year in business doesn’t mean anything.”
  • “You don’t like me.”
  • “This situation is not going to work out. I know something bad will happen.”

From an article on ANTs

Do they sound familiar? They do to me. I have thought like these all the time, and I never noticed. I have always had an unwavering belief that everything in my mind was right. Sure, sometimes I’d admit being wrong, but only because I was given wrong or insufficient information, and not because my brain could arrive at the wrong conclusion from the right evidence.

Well, from reading this book, I now know that I can, indeed, think poorly or wrongly. And the revelation has had an extreme effect on me. After noticing more and more of my personal ANTs, I can’t help but to question myself. How much of my thinking is just plain wrong? I had had confidence in myself, but now I cannot even trust my own mind.

(Of course, the book does share a number of mental strategies to correct ANTs (ANTeaters, haha), which are also briefly described in the article linked above. Those have been super-helpful, but they’re not what this article is about)

These discoveries have had a significant emotional impact. I lost a piece of my identity. That’s not something you experience without turmoil. I’ve experienced dazes while surrounded by friends during which I have silent little panics. What are people doing? What am I doing here? It’s as if I forget every social convention and have to figure it out by observation all over again. Eventually, the loss of confidence in my mind brought some humility. I have a much greater ability to have an opinion and be willing to re-examine it or abandon it later.

Through that humility I have found some emotional comfort as well. To dispel these recurring negative thoughts, I tell myself that I can’t trust my mind. And to soothe the emotional distress of losing assurance in my own thoughts, I tell myself that I am not my mind, but that it is a part of me and that it is (partially) under my control. That thoughts pass. That reality is not what it seems. And that, thank God, the world goes on despite my inability to be a perfect thinking machine.

Also, happy new year, everyone!

Disillusioned with technology

I used to be a real nerd for technology. Almost anything computer-related was fascinating to me, and I was really into consumer electronics*. I kept up with the latest releases from Intel and AMD, “built” computers from components that I couldn’t afford via NewEgg, and became an expert Windows user with nothing but exposure.

And, of course, I liked video games. A lot. I really loved E3, “industry” talk, and making predictions about future games and systems (I even successfully predicted that the Wii would make Nintendo stock very valuable; and it did–from $15 to $75 in less than a year). I have estimated that I’ve spent over 10,000 hours of my life playing them (which apparently does not necessarily make me an expert).

Well, I’m 27 now. I just finished a 6-month sabbatical in which I trained myself to becomes a front end developer, and a few weeks ago I became employed. It’s 9:30 on a Saturday and I want to get on the computer and have fun, like I often have. Problem is, nothing seems interesting. I’m completely bored by the idea of playing a video game. And that, in itself, is interesting.

For years already, my desire to play video games has been declining. I see new games that simultaneously look really cool and incite no excitement in me whatsoever. Sometimes I browse Steam’s catalog, discover a few gems, and then simply walk away. To be honest, I’m thankful. This opens up my time to be used in better ways.

Now, it seems my disillusionment is spreading to technology in general. I just looked at some awesome notebooks and 4k curved monitors out of my own volition, and turned away completely bored. Amazingly fast hardware is neat, and nothing more.

So what? I’m only 27, right? Sadly, I think too much. Extrapolate this series of disillusionment into the rest of my life, and I can’t help but to wonder, or maybe fear, that one day every joy of life will be dulled. It sounds insufferable.

Is this, perhaps, one of the reasons people die? Are people supposed to become disillusioned with life? Or maybe I am simply falling out of love with this world: 1 John 2:15-17.

I’m interested to see what happens next.

* I must note an important exception. I hated Apple’s philosophy of delivering a simple product that performed well and cost a premium above an equivalent product. I didn’t like simplicity. I wanted the power to do what I wanted to do, not what Apple wanted me to do. Most of all, though, I hate iTunes. That’s one passion of mine that hasn’t completely died yet.