Self-Powered Mathematical Courage

How would you define courage? Go ahead, take a moment to grab a pen and paper or open a text document, and write down your thoughts. What does courage mean to you? Can you think of examples where you demonstrated courage or where you didn’t but could have? For just a moment, be courageous enough to try and define courage.

My coach asked me this question last week. I first remember that the word courage comes from the heart, and it’s inspiring to know that the mind doesn’t need to be involved in courage. I gave a long-winded answer about actions, beliefs, and thoughts overpowering a “cannot” mindset. Later in our discussion I came to the simplified thought “Courage = Motivation > Hesitation”. When motivation is stronger than hesitation, this is courage, to me.

From my vantage point, some global societies and especially individuals have faltered in the past year, due to the unanticipated change of priorities and decision-making criteria. Where have you hesitated and/or felt less courageous during the Coronavirus pandemic? Where have you acted with a high degree of motivation and courage?

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt gives a definition of moral systems which focuses on behaviors and identities that “suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible”. I like to think of this as action/thought/belief/etc in the interest of the common good. Perhaps we have started to hesitate, to ponder decisions, and to act less readily, due to the fact that “common good” has been called into question more frequently. With personal ethics at each of our foundations, it’s natural that we struggle to act when we face ethical dilemmas. We have seen a re-shuffling of the hierarchy and new faces become the essential, critical actors that deserve priority. The richest players have, in some cases, been replaced by the most vulnerable, and we are not used to the rules of this new game. Haidt’s moral systems ask us which outlets we use to suppress self-interest and make cooperation possible.

We increasingly and repeatedly ask ourselves: What public health precautions are in the interest of the common good? What policing strategies serve the common good? What activities should be allowed / disallowed against a raging virus? What tasks should I prioritize in my routine when the routine is disrupted and my environment becomes stagnate?

In a separate publication, Haidt also determined that people who highly respect authority figures are far more likely to believe society will break down if strong institutions do not regulate conduct. I suspect that in today’s set of crises, the lack of clarity and certainty at the authoritative level limits the factors on which we can base our decisions. Ambiguity thus impairs action. Perhaps this is why start-ups and ambitious companies strategically employ people who can work autonomously, and thriving is hard. Where authority lacks, autonomous beings attempt to self-regulate. Autonomy comes from the Greek words for “self” and “law”. Of course, people participating in a system cannot be fully autonomous, else wise the system is necessarily non-existent. The capacity to make an informed decision depends on having information. Thus, we are a bit handicapped these days, not having the same degree of reliable information, realizing what we thought to be facts are more stories and agreed-upon-realities, and not being our usual “autonomous” selves.

Hesitation is thriving, and what’s the status of motivation? With frequent thought patterns of no-end-in-sight and increasing rates of burnout, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have undoubtedly suffered across the collective. Hesitation has blossomed, while motivation has hibernated. To re-empower ourselves and flip the tables, experts like Daniel Goleman and Viktor Frankl recommend focusing on incremental goals and acknowledge that achieving (even small) intrinsically motivated outcomes can restore motivation, like a self-charging battery.

I find myself relieved to land on such a simple definition of courage. Although hesitation sometimes outweighs motivation, I think we can all look for an area where we have zero hesitation, we can act, and we can start to re-empower ourselves to be a soft blend of motivated and courageous. Can you relate?

Dear America,

I’m sorry – for your losses. No, thank you – for refreshed perspective on values. Asking “who am I?” is one of the most daunting doors to open, not because it’s hard to answer, but because inquiry and curiosity are artforms of courage. I don’t know if I’m American anymore, and I mean “I don’t know.” I don’t mean “I’m not.” A crisis is a reckoning, and loss is not the guaranteed outcome; we can win, collectively. The beauty of the American dream is perhaps only known to outsiders. Once you’re inside it’s a nightmare, and once you’re outside it’s an epiphany that “hard work pays off” has also perpetuated some people working hard and other people getting the pay off and increasingly few people in between. And if you’ve never been outside, you might not see that it’s a dream; you might not know whether you’re fighting demons or chasing unicorns; you might not see that reality is part beauty, part shame, and part not knowing. And having all okay for one is not the same as okay for all. What is the American dream? Is it a dream if you lived it without ever consciously noticing? Dreaming happens, and knowing what I dream is called waking up. This is my wake up call, to myself.

I’m sorry that we let ourselves believe the idea for so long that we were the greatest country on earth, not because we’re not great, but because there are so many measures and lifting oneself up doesn’t mean – doesn’t have to mean – putting others down. I’m sorry that our President doesn’t demonstrate this belief. No one wins if 51% feel validated and 49% feel shame, because we’re one body. I believe integrity is presenting things as they truly are, and sometimes that means saying “I could use some support.” Sometimes integrity means acknowledging “I’m not where I hoped I would be at this point.” Dear America, I acknowledge that you are hurt and you have suffered, and this life is not the one that you always dreamed. This acknowledgement is when we can begin to heal. We don’t need to hide from our humanity, which the delineation of self from society inherently means we miscalculate. Recovery from miscalculation comes far easier when we re-assess the whole picture. We can adjust the journey to the goal without changing the goal itself. Taking steps backward or sideways often gives us the strength to step forward. If it’s not moving, don’t force it. If it doesn’t run, don’t chase it. If it’s not wet, don’t wring it out. Build her wheels. Teach him to walk. Collect some water, or wait for the rain. You know: gardens grow where seeds are watered. And we have Earth, seeds, and water, and the intelligence to grow back more sustainably, more responsibly.

I’m sorry – that you’ve pulled from the garden for so long without watering. We stopped visiting. We depended on labor without listening to their warnings. We’re tired. The plants are sick. The inputs dried up before the outputs, and the supply chain is so long that we didn’t notice, I think. And now… what does forward look like?

Rest. Nutrition. Trauma. Healing. Revitalization. Investment. Paying the hard workers, more than “enough.” Enough is enough, but yesterday’s enough is not today’s enough.

The last straw was when a stranger spoke about dentistry in a presentation at work: “Germans have had the Krankenkasse (public health insurance system) for decades, and Americans have had… nothing.” The pain came in the form of truth, realizing that both the red pill and the blue pill encapsulate a hard reality that the past is insufficient. With the blinds and shutters closed for months, I open my eyes to understand I’ve been tossing shit into my neighbors’ lawns. It’s not just adversely affecting their lives. I’m poisoning the hand that feeds me, and the very ground I stand on. Love my neighbor as my… selfishness is directly tied to selflessness, and we’re communal beings, responsible for ensuring the safety of more than our own self-selected. To be human is to accept the question of our own values, and exploring the question means paying a visit to the neighbor’s farm, knocking on their front door, giving out not a hand, but a heart.

The connection of ourselves emotionally helps us see that while skin is a barrier to protect us from the outside world, it is not something that we need to fear separating or distinguishing us. I can feel with my heart what I can’t see with my eyes. I listen with my body what I can’t feel with my hands. We are all sensory, yet so often sensitized to fear one another. We neglect to acknowledge that fear is the very ground that we stand on, what connects us, that our feet walk on one body of land. Nike both brings us together and keeps us apart.

I look at my finances – a simple graph, showing the net worth of my combined savings and investments over time. Thank you, Trump, for building the economy. But, no, thank you. This is not the economy. I opt out of a system that doesn’t work for the majority. Nor the minority. If I gain and the majority loses, there is no winner. (Hello, electoral college.) We can compete without being enemies. We can gain trust and let go of control. We can recognize that what’s in our pockets speaks nothing of what’s in our heart. Yes, we need money in our pockets, but it’s worth far more when we choose where to put it with our hearts. Should I buy my own bread, build my own bakery, or teach my neighbor how to bake as they reap the wealth of their own wheat? There is no answer, but there is the question. Dear America, what do I value?

The Languages of Love and Belonging

We have a universal need to love and belong, to feel connected, and to perceive that we are understood and accepted. In the recent weeks, parts (not all) of the world are sometimes (not always) reeling in confusion with re-arranged priorities and routines. My favorite moments recently are the ones where I spontaneously recall that health is suddenly being challenged and prioritized and realizing I forgot, at least for a little while, about the changing world order. By my observation, we’ve suddenly pulled health to closely follow a longstanding “safety first” mentality. I wonder if we’re renewing our understanding of “health and safety” as twinned concepts. But in our search for safety and security, I’m afraid the ways that we communicate are not serving our mental health extraordinarily, and I believe it’s because we are avoiding honesty with superficiality.

Full disclosure: I’m writing this because I’m tired of people asking me, “what is it like” where I am. Whether people abroad want me to report on the state of Germany’s health or friends nearby are curious for me to share my experience, I don’t have confidence that my response can fully encapsulate the world around me, and I don’t want to try to summarize. (Also I had to go to tutoring in fifth grade because I didn’t perform well on the summary questions in standardized testing.) Here’s what my answer might be now:

Germany has 16 individual states who make their own decisions with federal guidelines, guided by a scientist as chancellor; I appreciate you soliciting my perspective, but I don’t feel I can adequately answer. I am one person in one apartment in one neighborhood, and I am not fluent enough to read all the local news… Germany’s managed rather well, but I’m not a scientist or an economist. I haven’t crunched numbers, I’ve stopped reading most news (it doesn’t matter…!) and I’m much more part of a foreign community than any local perspective. I’ve moved apartments twice since mid-March, so the concept of “normal” is totally out of reach for me in the first place. If anything, I feel this crisis has barely touched my life.

I hope this reads as mildly irritated, because I am confused, and I like you, I want to be coherent. I want to be understood, too, but I’m afraid I can’t communicate concisely. I’m noticing that my conversations drag on and repeat themselves, suggesting that we’re not getting what we’re asking for. Or at least, I’m not giving what others are asking. When I talk with friends, family, even networking digitally with strangers… I’m afraid I can’t adequately respond. Maybe it’s time to stop skirting the question. Maybe we need to be a little bit more forward with the fact that many of us are confused and trying to make sense of our changing identities (or contrarily, confused that we’re stagnant while others are panicking) and that suddenly the world some of us thought we understood is not the current reality. I don’t think we’re going to get there with “how are you?” on the phone or by text or Zoom or…

I’m reminded of numbers 5 and 6 on a list called “8 Things Gay Guys Should Start Saying to Each Other (More Often)” — which I think is more aptly prescribed for all humans in modern society. I encourage you to read the whole list, and I’ll shortcut you here:

  1. I’m a strong person, but I’m hurting right now.
  2. I’m afraid of opening up.

Maybe we can seek connection not by asking others to summarize what’s going on, but rather by directly sharing what we need, think, and feel. Yes, I’d rather be strong than be vulnerable, but vulnerability is a path to greater strength. I would encourage us to try conversations that might include:

  • I’m finding it hard to feel connected in the ways I’m most used to. I’m glad to have you in my life. I know I would really appreciate a hug right now, and it would feel wonderful to have that desire acknowledged. Can I do anything to support you?
  • I’m doing the best I can, but some people I know have shamed me for not taking this as seriously as them. Being shamed doesn’t encourage me to keep trying my best.
  • I have lost my routine and the constant change has made me feel [insert emotional word here, e.g. numb, sad, dazed]. Would you be open to listening to my experience?
  • With so many new experiences, I struggle to make sense of the world around me. I know I’m not alone in this struggle, but I do feel that I am alone.
  • Many people are grieving as our identities and the people around us change so quickly. I have to admit that I feel sort of untouched by the new world order, and I feel uncomfortable that I’m not struggling.

Signage is the other concept that has challenged my thinking on belonging recently. I’ve learned the German word for “current” through reading countless signs that encourage people to stay 1.5-2 meters apart “in der aktuelles Situation”. I see it in English texts, too. Everyone’s talking about the “current” situation, and part of me thinks that we’re doing ourselves / each other a disservice by not naming the reality. Then again, it might be unfair to universally prescribe meaning to an experience that everyone perceives differently. If I were making these signs, I might forget about the introductory clause, and jump straight to the point, avoiding the emotional-avoidance, like technical writers are taught. Good error messages don’t say “Oops! Something has gone wrong,” because the vagueness leaves space for the user to interpret they should be concerned or that they screwed up. Implying abnormality can evoke shame, which triggers disconnection. Don’t blame the user; blame the product or the documentation.

In this vein, we could create a better sense of communal belonging if businesses post signs that say:

  • “Please save 1.5 meters for yourself, and we look forward to serving you shortly.”
  • “You’re welcome here. We appreciate if you give space between you, staff, and other customers, and we’ll give you space in return.”
  • “Thank you for trusting us with your time, money, and health. We invite you to take at least 6 feet of space between yourself and others.”

What do you think of my revisions?
And can you help me belong by confirming any of my observations? Are there conversation formats or messages that have made you feel especially appreciated and maintained your sense of belonging in recent weeks?

Cool, Compassionate Thoughts

I feel preemptively fulfilled imagining that I could take at least one conscious breath and mindfully observe one heartbeat every day of the rest of my life. This imagination brings so much peace and relaxation to my mind and body. Like damn…. I’ve thought about it for a week, and it still feels profound, beautiful, and aspirational. And I’m really grateful that I’ve now conditioned my mind to automatically initiate a deep breath in certain moments of false crises. (Real talk: I don’t need to panic when the audio or video is shifty on a conference call.)

Many of us are living, breathing, moving, feeling, and thinking in a world that works quite differently than what we’re accustomed to. We might be uncomfortable at times, and as I learned in Jordan, it’s not so easy to step outside our comfort zone when we’re not so comfortable in the first place. I’ve taken to therapist Esther Perel’s in-progress weekly broadcasts. (Watch live Wednesdays 3pm EDT / 9 pm CET, or watch recorded versions on YouTube). While I don’t relate to all the challenges that she describes of kids and partners at home in quarantine – on the contrary, I’m either alone or with newly acquainted flatmates – I especially like that she counters “working from home” by suggesting we’re “working with home” and all the accompanying and challenging factors. Similarly, I’m as big a fan as ever of Brene Brown, and my recent highlight from Mama B’s new podcast program is her reference to FFTs (f*ing first times), acknowledging that yes, it’s hard to do new things, and it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Cool – let’s learn something(s)!

My first conscious realization that the sky is always blue, after capturing the midnight summer sky on Lake George, NY, USA, August 2010.

To shift beyond discomfort, I feel inspired in response to these thoughts:

  • The sky is always blue. Yep, even when clouds cover the atmosphere or when the sun sets at night, the sky itself is still blue. I try not to let the weather choose my ‘tude.
  • The breath is always present. I can choose to breathe voluntarily or let the subconscious operate; either way, I’m always breathing!
  • The whole world shares one moon (and one sun, but it’s not so healthy to stare in awe). For those of us at significant distance from anyone we love or like or think of, just take a gander at the big cheese ball in the sky, and remember someone else is looking, too.
  • Oh, and “discomfort” isn’t pain. Discomfort is being without strength (Latin: fortis); discomfort is my body and mind giving me feedback that I’m exercising something new.

I guess there’s a theme here: unity. We’re all – humans, plants, animals, fungi, viruses, bacteria, etc – in this life/world/earth/moment together, and it’s nice when we choose to take care of ourselves and one another. Care means something different to each of us, and it changes from moment to moment. I’ve learned in reflecting on relationships that we all need doses of compassion. In some circumstances, two parties each need compassion, and both feel like the other needs to step in to support; that’s hard! When I find myself “stuck” in a conflict with someone/something/myself and looking for compassion, I try to consider whether I might step forward and give compassion first.

  1. What are some of the compassionate actions you’ve received or would like to receive recently?
  2. Consider the last person you spoke with: what might it look like for you to give compassion to that person?

Peace Within.

Writer’s note: I’m not certain (ha! what is certainty?) whether this piece is complete. I would love some comments and questions about what could tie it together. How can my words be more wholesome?

With the exception of the most critical responders, all of us are asked to turn inward. To stay home. To commute our attention from home to work and back, without leaving home. To meet fewer people. To rely on ourselves for more meals at home. To be stationary and forego transience. We are invited, in a commanded way, to commune with ourselves.

What a time to be alive. The thought that repeatedly crosses my mind. I have the sensation that I’m in a virtual reality experience, moving through a world with real sensation but where everyone is participating in different stories. To come together in a common story as is inherent in humanity, I believe we must first come to know, love, and nurture ourselves.

Spring is awakening the Earth, in the northern hemisphere. The temperature oscillates from dawn to noon to dusk to night. With each cycle, the daylight hours grow longer. The plants are gifted with a bit more sunlight and warmth to fuel themselves back to life. Each cell takes what it needs, not more. Each plant nurtures itself and shares benefits to co-exist with the others. The sunlight is plentiful, and moisture returns each morning. Hibernation fades away; nature’s conscience breathes movement from a sleeping vibration to a waking rhythm. The process is slow to the observing eye, and if a tree sprouts in the forest, and no one is there to watch it, yes, it still sprouts.

Many trees sprout.

I see people panicking. [Digression: psychologists have found that when people perceive that they are losing control, they buy more “functional” products that they think will give them a sense of control.] Is panic contagious? Since last summer, I’ve started to see trauma in others’ physical expression (almost everyone, really). Now especially, I see a mass of mess of miscommunication. I see instability and chaos, in my world and in the broader world. Yet I feel (almost) completely stable and grounded, and this makes me feel comfortably out of place. I find comfort knowing that we are mutually and equally uncertain of the future, and certainty rests merely in each breathing moment. It’s normal to panic, and these reactions merit validation.

Yes, this perception is partially rooted in the global outbreak of whatchamacallit. It’s fascinating to watch the people of the world trust in institutions that we take for granted, to see that we’re all let down and disappointed by these institutions, and to observe that people still wait for the institutions to advise how to act. Perhaps we are well to remember that “corporation” comes from “corporare,” corpus, to combine in one body, the human, an entity made of us. To trust in the other, can I first trust myself? To stay safely at home, we must find the home within our physical body. I #stayhome when I fully inhabit – and dwell in – my body and my mind.

Some seedlings grow tall.

I’ve long believed in the importance of religion, because – I hypothesize – society would be a mess if everyone would think for themself. The viral outbreak has led me to think that government holds the same importance, that people – including me – need to be told how to think and act, and that when we fail to secure our collective health and wellbeing, we fail to acknowledge our human consciousness. Lack of planning often constitutes an emergency, and an emergency that is perceived as a threat to any individual will trigger the brain’s fight/flight response and the sympathetic nervous system. And when we learn to recognize this animal response, we have the possibility to train ourselves how to return to conscious, rational thinking. The emotional response – in the physical body, the mind, and the spaces between – and the rational thoughts deserve equal validation.

We have a choice to not panic, even in the face of uncertainty and insecurity.

Breathing is one method of restoring the mind to a state of peace. In the German language, atmen means to breathe, and in Sanskirt, ātman means inner self, spirit or soul. Both come from the PIE root “etmen.” In a shift from involuntary to voluntary control – when we choose how to inhale, hold, and exhale – the breath can control the mind and pull the brain from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. The SNS controls responses to threat with a hyper-aware mind and body prepared to react; the PNS enables rest, digestion, and homeostasis. I hypothesize that the physical activity and conscious control of the body that yoga offers correlates with a stronger confidence and trust that I can control my safety and security, even in vulnerable moments. Aside from physical fitness activities and yoga, how often do I consciously choose to engage tension and relaxation in different body parts? Rarely. Therefore, I learn to find comfort and rest in tension in my yoga practice.

For all trees, rest and shedding layers are cycles of life.

My stability in chaos is healing an affliction in my current circumstances: between physical living arrangements, constantly transforming interpersonal relationships, waiting on official legal paperwork, being employed in a strong-but-threadbare start-up. Factually, many of the major variables and aspects of my life feel uncertain. Amidst this, I take 100% ownership and acceptance of my reality, and I’m not afraid. I have been afraid. I know what fear feels like, physically, in my body. Right now, I don’t feel afraid. And if I feel fear later, I’ll continue to breathe, to peel away the layers of my mind, and to find peace within.

Guest Blog: Atolla Skin Stories

Thank you to Atolla’s team for trusting my words and giving me a new platform to share my writing talents.

This is the first in a series of skin stories written by Atolla users about their relationship with their skin. Stephen, a cyclist and yogi, shares his journey of learning more about his skin with Atolla.

In Stephen’s words:

On the cusp of understanding my skin sequence with the help of Atolla, I find it helpful to digest and process my skin story. It’s my skin, the literal face that I present to the world, and no doubt, the world around me signals that I belong when my skin is clear, smooth, evenly colored… no blemishes, no bumps, no discoloration or patchiness. Since my early teenage years, I’ve struggled with a variety of skin experiences. 

Decades later, I remember my best friend’s mother handing me a washcloth on a teenage sleepover, and hearing for the first time that I should wash my face every night, then feeling a burning sensation and thinking that, maybe, the washcloth was too abrasive for my sensitive skin. Decades later, I remember sitting in a doctor’s office with my mom and being prescribed steroids for folliculitis, when the follicles on my upper leg hairs spontaneously inflamed. I fearfully thought I had a “freak” second episode of chicken pox. I remember asking the same doctor for help managing acne, and subsequently taking a low dosage antibiotic and topical until the zits and blackheads subsided. I felt guilty when the towels discolored and wondered why I needed multiple prescription medications for my skin to be “normal.” I remember seeing my near-retirement father manage minor breakouts and wondering if that would be me in thirty or forty years. In more recent years, I remember finally establishing a strong relationship with a dermatologist, who truly took the time to understand my needs and my lifestyle. He helped me understand that, yes, my bike helmet’s foam comfort band was potentially holding bacteria from my sweat. He helped me understand that I’d be best to look for non-comedogenic sunscreen and products best for sensitive skin. Sensitive? Was that my skin type…? 

I felt guilty when the towels discolored and wondered why I needed multiple prescription medications for my skin to be “normal.” 

I remember taking a friend to a boutique skincare store and both of us being confused, not having the vocabulary to answer “how would you describe your skin?” I mean, how would I describe my skin if I had no education in skin…? How would I describe the texture of my living room walls or the shape of the clouds in the sky? I felt ill-equipped to answer this. Skin talk isn’t small talk.

And then I remember, after hearing about Atolla, understanding that oil and moisture were two separate concepts. When I took the Skin Health Test, I skeptically realized that my skin’s pH would matter; until now, pH was grade school light-the-bulb-with-produce science, not part of my morning routine. And did I want a water- or oil-based serum? What’s a serum? Something I should do between cleansing and moisturizing? As far as I knew, it was cleanse then apply toner, which subdued my acne but left my skin feeling dry and warm…

The most confidence-inducing realization was that Atolla could help me manage all this learning, from the comfort of my home, without me needing to book follow-up appointments and go to multiple skincare aisles to read products that I didn’t understand the ingredients. Being mobile – traveling regularly, living with small bathroom spaces, sometimes showering at gyms or away from home – also means that I don’t want to carry five bottles of soaps, lotions, oils, and emergency topicals. I wanted simplicity and confidence, and Atolla keeps delivering. 

In the past few months, I’ve reduced my facial skincare to basic cleanser, serum, and moisturizer. I no longer have the curiosity to explore other products in the dense and overwhelming skincare aisles. I don’t need to ask another shopping center kiosk full of plastic bottles, testers, and airplants “what do you think maybe might be good for my skin?” and “why would that product be good for me to try?”. I won’t take home a 2-3 day trial sample, begrudgingly knowing that skin is environmental and can take weeks to adapt… 

The most confidence-inducing realization was that Atolla could help me manage all this learning, from the comfort of my home, without me needing to book follow-up appointments and go to multiple skincare aisles to read products that I didn’t understand the ingredients. 

Now I know my skin type:

I started at B-5443, moved to B-5553, and my latest test shows B-5653. This means breakouts are my primary concern; my skin’s oil stays in the upper-range of healthy; my hydration has increased toward healthy over the past four months; I’ve stabilized my pH level at 5; and I continue to sometimes sunburn, and slowly tan.

Now I know that skin can take several months to acclimate to new products. Now I don’t worry about buying extra products that I might not use completely and don’t know where to dispose responsibly. Now I trust that my skin can stay healthy and look young, without believing my face might fit the pre-pubescent stereotype at any moment. Now I have one consistent routine with a small set of products. Now I have the support of Atolla’s team whenever I am ready to update my skin test or have questions about my results. 

Now I want you to try a free month of Atolla, tell your skin story, and refer your friends.