Up, Up, and Away


I turn 31 in three weeks. I don’t know if other people feel this same way, but being an adult has proven to be much more difficult than I expected. Not to say I’m in deep crisis mode, but I wouldn’t say I “have it all figured out” — not by a long shot. Obviously plenty of older people tried to prepare me for this feeling, and I thought I was listening to them, but I guess I never really was. Maybe it’s impossible to really feel it until you’re feeling it.

I think what surprises me the most is the sudden loss of linear movement. Childhood and early adulthood, divvied up neatly into semesters and seasons and milestone ages, just created so much structural inertia, so much thrust forward along a track, that it is now quite jarring at 30 to look around and feel none of that initial fuel source in the engine anymore. The space shuttle has dropped its thrusters and we’re now floating in space, powered in theory by something different, something new, that was previously dormant, or at best, underutilized. 

I’m sure this feeling is not universal — after all, a lot of this foundational integrity I felt is thanks to my particular privilege and my particular upbringing. Not to mention, many people, possibly most, bounce seamlessly between this original fuel source and something equally potent, equally reliable, without really feeling the gap. I have no idea, but I would imagine that to go from high school to college to law school to a law firm, with no uncertainty in between, would eliminate your awareness of this transition entirely. That being said, I do believe almost everyone makes some sort of shift, some recalibration, from “getting this thing in the air” to actually “piloting” the thing itself. Perhaps for me, a writer, director, and most-of-the-time freelancer, this procedure happens with much less anesthetic. 

But what are these two fuel sources, exactly? The first one I believe is quite simple: it is that elemental need to matter, to exist, and to be somebody. In my own personal experience, I think I knew instinctually in my last year in college that it was going to take a lot of energy to break through the atmosphere and find my footing on the other side. I was driven by a desire to have a life, whatever life that might be; to have an identity, hopefully one that was close to who I actually was, but it was more important to have one than for it to be 100% accurate. I didn’t want to be left behind, to make it out of incubation. I wanted to say something, anything, and for it to be heard, and nothing was more important than harnessing my whole childhood’s worth of pent-up energy and pouring it fully into that effort. 

This is an incredibly powerful fuel source. After all, it is the driving force behind a lot of the great art and creativity in history. People in their 20s, driven by an obsessive and unrestrained need to “arrive” into adulthood, have changed the world countless times. This explosive propulsion is not without its downsides, however. We’ve all known people (or been people) that are deeply driven, constantly in motion, and we all know what is sacrificed in these situations in terms of structure, sustainability, and peace of mind. It look me years to truly understand how ungrounded I was, how messy my room was, and it wasn’t until my late 20s that I began to feel aware of and humbled to the consequences of that pace. I am tangentially reminded of the “27 Club,” the eerily long list of artists who died at age 27 from substance abuse, violence, suicide, or accidents. I’m obviously not comparing myself to Janis Joplin (illegal drugs make me nervous), or saying all young people are on a collision course with harsh truths, but rather, just that being pushed forward by this particularly powerful engine, while it is exciting and beautiful in many respects, is not especially compatible with responsibility, mindful decision making, or a deeper emotional well-being.

I think it was around age 27 that I started to feel those initial thrusters coming off. Suddenly, I no longer felt the need to “be somebody” — I was someone, for better or worse. I no longer felt like I needed to arrive somewhere or do something — I was somewhere, and I was doing it, whatever “it” was. Nothing about life was definitively solved or “won” or figured out, but the curtain was up, and it was all happening. I felt like a sprinter, realizing he is running a marathon. Muscles shift, pacing alters, and internal motivation starts to come from a slightly different place. But where is that different place? Long story short, I think it’s different for everyone, and I’m still figuring it out for myself. I do believe it is connected to no longer “needing to be someone” but instead, asking “is this who I want to be?” No longer trying to “arrive,” but instead, asking “where am I? Is this home, or somewhere else?” I no longer feel like I’m leaning as much of myself towards an unknown future, putting off my happiness and comfort in the present moment as a luxury not yet earned. At 30, in my experience, you don’t need to “slow down” or “stop moving,” but you do need to be okay standing still, and feel fully yourself in a vacuum. This is a lifelong struggle that is not easy for anyone, especially me, but I do think it is essential to finding relative peace.

So, I guess for me, my new fuel source is starting to reveal itself. It has something to do with creativity as a necessary release, as exhaust off the machine, communicating humanity for the sake of itself. It also has something to do with truly, deeply, understanding the intangible value of a cooking a meal or making a bed. Sitting still. Really valuing it. While still powering on, full steam ahead, finding meaningful appreciation for slowness, and for actions that lacked “utility” in the eyes of a younger me. Writing this, I guess, is part of that process as well. 

In some ways, changing fuel sources feels like losing something. But what? My more desperate self? The raw chaotic power of youth? Who knows. In truth, while there is something lost, there is a lot gained. I think this secondary fuel can result in a deeper, richer, more nuanced and intentional source of movement, and it doesn’t just take you “up,” but to places you actually want to go. I’m sure as we all age we’ll find the tank empty over and over, and over and over, needing to shift and reignite. The only overarching goal I have is to never let the tank go empty. There’s always a new source somewhere, and once it’s found, you just need to grab the wheel, hit the gas, and go.

My Interview with David Christian

When it comes to learning history, I've always struggled to have patience for the details. I am fascinated by the longterm trends and patterns in the story of where we've been and where we're going, but as soon as the conversation turns to memorization of dates and names, I begin to fade a little bit. I think this is why I was so keen on the idea of "Big History," a multidisciplinary approach that starts with the Big Bang and crafts a consistent narrative up until the present day, all within a single course developed and taught by historian David Christian.

48 lectures later, I'm hooked. Reading more about the course, it quickly became clear that I am not alone in my appreciation for this wide lens perspective. In the years since he first began teaching Big History, Christian's mission has expanded, with the help of Bill Gates and others, into the Big History Project, an organization that aims to put this unique style of teaching into high schools and colleges all over the world. 

After finishing the course, I reached out to David Christian and asked if he would be willing to speak to me. I did not expect a response, but a few days later, I was speaking to him via Skype from his home in Australia. Much like the course itself, our conversation covers a wide range of topics, jumping around in scale and in discipline, but ultimately, he always brings it together in the end. I hope you enjoy.

Music Credit: "Little Walter Rides Again" by Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood


I was not prepared for the level of awe that I would feel walking into the Pantheon for the first time. I was in Rome on vacation, and we had already seen the Colosseum earlier that day, which I found to be fascinating but to be honest, it didn’t sweep me off my feet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome, I’m very glad I saw it, but I didn’t really “feel” anything when I stepped inside. There was no sensation of “being in its presence." I was just there, and it was there too. On the other hand, when I took my first few steps into the belly of the Pantheon, its cavernous, shadowed dome looming like an oncoming storm high above my head, it hit me right in the gut. I know this is not a controversial opinion, but it is truly awe-inspiring. I had seen pictures for my entire life, and I had never felt a thing. Which one is that again? Parthenon? Something like that? But being there, being enveloped on all sides, breathing in the cold, dark atmosphere of this ancient, hallowed place, it isn’t difficult to understand why even after the fall of polytheism, and then ultimately the Roman Empire itself, no one who came across it could bring themselves to tear it down. I am not a religious person, but I have to admit that standing in the circular pool of light beneath the Pantheon’s oculus as people were hustled out for closing time around me, I did find myself thinking: “there is something superhuman about this place.”

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about that feeling, where it comes from, what it may actually mean. Of course, many would say that I was simply feeling the presence of God. But as someone who believes that the concept of “God,” the concept and the word itself, are inventions of human beings, I was curious to try and step back to our earliest stages of cultural evolution and see the more malleable and fluid origins of this, before language came along and ruined the ambiguity.

Over the last few months, I’ve been taking an online course called “Big History,” taught by renowned historian David Christian. Basically, it’s a series of 48 lectures that begins at the Big Bang and ends with the modern day (holy crap, I know). Slowly but surely, I am making my way through it, and it has been consistently fascinating. In a lecture entitled "What Makes Humans Different,” Christian said something that I felt was pertinent to this Pantheon experience. In short, he said that the most notable advancement that Homo sapiens made over all other preexisting species was in their capacity for “collective learning.” Meaning, while apes and other intelligent animals were not necessarily less clever or resourceful, what they lacked was our unique ability to communicate complex, symbolic ideas to one another, which could then be stored in the collective communal consciousness and be used to benefit future generations. He compares the learning capacity of other species to Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill. Individuals would make progress in gaining knowledge and adapting to new environments throughout their life, but without any substantive ability to communicate it, their progress would be lost when they are. The boulder rolls back down, and the big push has to happen again from scratch.  “We face the world as members of a large extended community that reaches out in time and space to include everyone who has contributed anything to our cultural heritage,” explains Christian. “Chimps have to do it, more or less, alone. If you doubt this for a moment, just ask: how much of the knowledge in your brain or the information imbedded in the objects you use around you could have been generated by you alone in a single lifetime?” Chimps, and all other species, function like isolated computers. We, on the other hand, are networked. Our collective computing power is beyond anything this planet has ever seen, which explains our unprecedented adaptability and our exponential rise to dominance. 

In accepting this hypothesis as the explanation for our uniqueness as a species, I found myself thinking about that “awe-struck” feeling again. Is it possible that this feeling of a “superhuman” presence is in fact an acute awareness of raw power of billions of compounded human lives? Might the concept of “God” as we define it feel all-knowing because we are sensing the aggregation of all human knowledge, all-powerful because we sense the aggregation of all human power? There’s no doubt that the resonance of all ancient religious texts fits this hypothesis. Most historians agree that the wisdom contained in the Bible, for example, did not spring up out of nowhere. Not only did it initially arise as an aggregation of all the most poignant folk stories and spiritual lore of the time and place it was written, it also stems from generations and generations of moral evolution in our species. All of this has been gestating in our hive mind for hundreds of thousands of years before anyone got the chance to write it down, let alone print it and distribute it widely. And, while this is a controversial topic amongst believers, the Bible went through plenty of evolutionary stages as a text, often being tweaked by translators or church leaders to more adequately reflect their current needs or expectations. As theology professor Hugh Pyper says, “If 'survival of the fittest' has any validity as a slogan, then the Bible seems a fair candidate for the accolade of the fittest of texts.” This kind of evolutionary success is never accomplished by standing still. It is accomplished by adapting, and by building on previous success.

The same goes for the Pantheon. When I walk in and I think to myself “no mere mortal could build such a place,” I’m not wrong. No one human being could ever build such a place, not in a single lifetime. Not in one hundred lifetimes. Not only did this creation take ten years and hundreds of craftsman, it was all done from atop the shoulders of the individuals who first invented and experimented with concrete, brick, and granite. Pioneers in measurement, architecture, and design. No wonder it hits you as superhuman. In a sense, it truly is. Just imagine being a lowly peasant in the Roman Empire, visiting the Pantheon in its prime. You would have no education, no cultural context. Perhaps you haven’t even seen some of these building materials before, let alone an entire city built with them. The divine explanation would be literally all you could muster. Surely the Gods dropped this otherworldly perfection from the clouds! In truth, it is aggregate human knowledge masquerading as a spontaneous supernatural act, and I think even in the present day, we all experience this spiritually profound lack of context in the presence of great human work.

Years ago, I read a book called “The Evolution of God,” written by one of my intellectual heroes, Robert Wright. The book outlines the cultural evolution of the Judeo-Christian deity, from its roots in hundreds of anthropomorphic nature gods unique to particular villages or regions, to the mighty merged conglomerate and divine monopoly that is the One God. Another way to frame this movement, in the context of collective learning, is that as the world got smaller, as communication across continents became commonplace, humanity became more and more aware that it is a single entity, with a single collective history, and therefore, our collective aggregate knowledge and sense of morality is no longer fragmented and specialized to small groups, but in fact exists as a single, unfathomably deep and rich well of history. The One Story.

I believe you could go so far as to frame all spiritually, all moments of “awe,” as a subconscious involuntary reaction to the profound power nested in the aggregate depth of humanity. Perhaps we’re all aware of it, like a constant hum in the background. It’s always there, behind every human creation, behind every pair of eyes. I think instead of mislabelling these moments as a connection with the divine, with something above, I think we should see them as a connection with something foundational, something within.

My Interview with Clay Shirky

In 2010, when I graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, the keynote speaker was Clay Shirky, a professor of journalism and new media, as well as an esteemed author, lecturer and all around guru of our tech-driven past, present, and future. I have thought about his speech quite regularly since then, and about his incredible book "Here Comes Everybody," which I read soon after. 

In the last few months, throughout the election and in its aftermath, I kept finding myself thinking: what would Clay Shirky think about all this? I decided I might as well reach out and perhaps he would be willing to speak to me. After he quite unexpectedly agreed, I was suddenly quite overwhelmed with the number of questions I had, and by my inevitable inability to ask them clearly or succinctly. Luckily, he is better at speaking than almost anyone I've ever spoken to, so I didn't have to do much beyond giving him a nudge this way or that.

He is currently finishing up a stint at NYU in Shanghai, so we spoke via Skype, and we covered a wide range of topics, including Trump's election, fake news, the history of media, the invention of the printing press, and much more. I hope you enjoy.

P.S. I am hoping to do more interviews of this sort, and will at that time rerelease this interview as part one of a series, but until then, I am happy to share it here on its own.

Music Credit: "Little Walter Rides Again" by Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood

Trump as Batman

There is nothing more elemental to the human experience than the crafting of narrative. It’s in our bones, it’s how we find meaning. The good guys are called out of their ordinary world to act, to struggle against evil forces, destined to almost fail, but ultimately, to triumph. Faith in this structure is not only prevalent in fiction. Whether you are a storyteller by trade or not, we all intrinsically apply this arc to our lives and to the lives of those we empathize with and are rooting for. It’s a well tested survival mechanism, meant to promote forward motion and an appetite for innovation and change. It’s the driving force of our cultural evolution. Even when this traditional narrative is objectively absent, or the story at hand is infinitely more complex than good against bad, it is in our nature to find some version of this arc and recognize it as something familiar. This happens every day, in our media and pop culture, as well as in the deepest reaches of our subconscious. It is our foundation.

This is why it can be so gut wrenching when the narrative goes awry. When the good guy loses, or the story takes a turn that feels “wrong” or antithetical to the theme or the intent, it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us. Nothing makes sense, and the meaning falls away. The world becomes a dark and chaotic place, and the “truth” that you felt was being presented at the outset no longer feels viable.

In the weeks since the election, I have realized that one of the most profoundly upsetting things (among many) about the result was that it felt so deeply incorrect to me from a storytelling perspective. As a writer and director who lives his life deep in the “liberal bubble,” I think it really felt like the bad guy won. He was so clearly the wrong choice, so clearly the antagonist, based on a never-ending list of subtle and overt signifiers. To me, he could not have been scripted to be more clearly the villain. When he won, it just felt like my all my assumptions about our fellow citizens were being challenged. If millions of people voted for the bad guy, are they bad too? Is this the beginning of a larger story about bigotry, ego, and authoritarianism? Is this a story about the rise of a tyrant? Or about the end of the American experiment? What story is this?

This reaction is certainly a partial result of the blurred line that exists today between entertainment and news, and I definitely think that the media is at fault in many ways for presenting this election as a battle between personalities and brands more than a conversation about numbers, facts, and policies. But, ultimately, I think our own storytelling instincts are at fault as well. There had been many comparisons online between Trump and various pop culture bad guys, including Dr. Evil, Montgomery Burns, and especially Biff Tannen from Back to the Future 2. I happened to see Matilda the Musical on Broadway a few days after the election, and Matilda’s ignorant and smarmy salesman father was getting some pained laughs from the audience that were clearly a result of his unintended similarities to our new President Elect. The comparisons are all getting at the same archetype: Trump as a brash, ego-driven, thin skinned bully who wants nothing but power and recognition above all else. And since I believed in this narrative, everything that happened within the campaign reinforced it. The Khan family debacle, the Judge Curiel controversy, the Access Hollywood tape, and all of his flippant racism and sexism played into this crystal clear narrative in my mind. And so, on election night, I felt like many liberals did. It’s going to be closer than we think, but good will inevitably win in the end.

But what did “good” look like in this particular story? While I personally think Hillary Clinton would have made an excellent president and was more qualified than anyone who has run for president in years, I don’t think controlling the narrative has ever been her strong suit. Since the 90s, the anti-Clinton machine has been berating her with accusations and falsehoods, sullying her “brand” left and right, and as we saw on November 8th, she’s never really bounced back from that. We did our best to present her as a lifelong crusader for justice, as the hero of our story, but even some Bernie-leaning Democrats were never quite capable of getting past the thirty years of brand baggage that had miscast her as Dolores Umbridge, as Frank Underwood, as the Wicked Witch. While I saw her as measured, prepared and experienced, many saw her as duplicitous, manipulative, and self-serving. To them, she was clearly the villain in the story. Why the stark difference of perspective? There’s many possibilities, but in my opinion, it was a result of rampant sexism, party tribalism, and criminally biased news sources.

So, I can more or less understand how Hillary became the bad guy for these people, even if I think it was grounded in misinformation, but how could anyone rationalize Trump as the good guy? After reading many pieces about the “mind of the Trump voter,” and reflecting on the issues they bring up again and again, it slowly became clear to me. To them, I think, he was Han Solo, he was Dr. House, he was Batman. Is he troubled and deeply flawed? Of course. But it’s his maverick, outsider status that allows him to swoop in and use his unique set of skills to fight for justice against the established order. Just like Dr. House’s drug use or Bruce Wayne’s unchecked wealth, his character flaws did not succeed in undermining his candidacy for them because the thesis of this election’s narrative, from their perspective, had nothing to do with that. Sure, there is a way to tell a story about Batman in which he is held to task by the writer for his wealth, his vigilantism, and his inexperience within the criminal justice system, but that was not the movie they were watching. From the outset, he was the hero in their eyes, the revolutionary up against the establishment, and they were rooting for the revolution — nothing could change that.

So, what can be gleaned from this narrative point of view? I think first and foremost is that if the Democrats want to start winning elections again, we need to learn how to think in terms of narrative with the same dexterity that a born entertainer like Trump does. We can complain all we want about the sensationalist media landscape and its obsession with horse races, but in the end of the day, it isn’t going away anytime soon. And besides, Obama won twice, and won many people who voted for Trump this time around, not only because he was a superb candidate but because his narrative worked. As cynical as it may seem, it was much harder to find a compelling pitch for Obama as the bad guy. To many, he was Indiana Jones, he was Spok, he was Obi Wan. The only counter-narrative was that he was a muslim terrorist sleeper agent of some sort, and while plenty of people found a way to buy that, it was never believable enough to keep him out of the White House. 

The other night, after Alec Baldwin returned to Saturday Night Live to mock Trump, the President Elect tweeted (again) to complain about it. “It is totally one-sided, biased show - nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?” Alec Baldwin tweeted back: “Equal time? Election is over. There is no more equal time. Now u try 2 b Pres + ppl respond. That’s pretty much it.” I think this interaction is so telling, and is such a clear signifier that Trump is stuck in the narrative mindset. And it makes sense that he’s stuck there, it’s really all that he’s good at. That's why he thrived in the world of reality shows, a format predicated on empty, inorganic narrative, packaged to feel like something happened but with no substance or staying power. He’s like James Bond the day after he gets the girl and wins the day. What happens next? What happens to a character defined by conflict when they vanquish their foes? I think, like James Bond being confronted with maintaining an actual relationship, Trump is dreading what comes next. The day to day business of running the country will never have the same narrative thrust that the campaign did, and so ultimately, he will falter, and there will be a clear opening for a new “hero” to rise.

Elections are epic dramas on a national stage, and whether we like it or not, we need to take that pageantry seriously. I know, it’s anti-intellectual, and we liberals hate that, but it’s a reality we need to embrace. We can never again be lulled into a sense of complacency, assuming our narrative perspective is as obvious to others as we think it is to ourselves. Again, this is also on the media, but it is also on all of us to see the spin, and instead of ignoring or attempting to rise above it, hitting back hard with a counter-narrative that speaks directly to the heart. So, in future elections, let’s make sure our story is loud and clear, and that we really, truly, believe in it. I think that the American people, for all their faults, have shown themselves willing to be pushed one way or another by a well crafted narrative. Therefore, In 2018 and 2020, when the curtains rise once again, let’s make sure we tell the better story.

Trust Fall

When I graduated from NYU, the keynote speaker for the Tisch School of the Arts was Clay Shirky, a new media professor. At first, I was disappointed — who is this guy? Why aren’t we hearing from one of our many prestigious alumni? Heck, I’d even take Billy Crudup (class of ’94). But once he started speaking, it quickly became clear why he was the ideal speaker to address a room of future “content creators” in the cultural moment we were arcing through, and a lot of what he said has remained lodged in my brain ever since (I also highly recommend his book “Here Comes Everybody.”)

While I was walking to work yesterday, listening to an episode of NPR’s “On the Media” about the influence of “fake news” on the election earlier this month, I was reminded of something that Shirky said in the opening of his speech. He said that for hundreds of years, the dissemination of media has been done through a process of filter, then distribute. Meaning, media entities (scribes, news organizations, etc.) would take in the wall of noise that is our collective cultural experience, and then, using their expertise and insight, they would whittle it down to what they deemed to be “newsworthy.” But now, since the invention of the internet, that dynamic has become distribute, then filter. The “trusted brands” of the mainstream still exist and are still doing their thing, but they often end up being nothing more than slightly brighter stars in an increasingly uniform starry sky of information, and it is up to us to “filter” for ourselves.

At the time, this was quite a revelation to me and many of my co-graduates. Nowadays, you will find that nothing is more fashionable among my generation of creative people than raising a toast to the internet age and the demise of the “gatekeepers.” Finally, the jungle can be entered without paying for a guided tour. The playing field has been leveled. Every voice can be heard. Terms like “democratization” get thrown around, and I will admit I have thrown it around myself. But yesterday, reflecting on this, I could not help but see the more complex implications of a loss of trusted authority, in our media and in our culture widely.

Throughout human history, faith in authority has not only been essential for a functional media environment, it has been essential to survival. At the earliest stages of our society, we needed to specialize, to divide and conquer, in order to thrive. There simply wasn’t the bandwidth for all of us to understand and master every available skill or craft — we needed to trust each other. Of course, trust in authority is always a precarious balancing act, and while it still remains an inevitable aspect of daily life, many sources of authority have seen their trust eroded in unprecedented ways in the last one hundred years. There are many people much more knowledgeable on these things than me that have written about how Vietnam, Watergate, and misuse of American power in the 20th century severely undermined our ability to put faith in our leaders in this country. In addition, modern science has done significant damage to the validity of traditional religious beliefs, one of the oldest sources of authority and guidance in existence. Don’t get me wrong, I know that many, many people still put their full faith in their religion, but studies have shown that irreligiousity is on the rise in United States, and that even many people who self-identity as a member of a major religion do not trust it as an arbiter of their day to day ethics or turn to it for philosophical guidance. 

But what’s wrong with questioning the authority of our politicians and our priests? Shouldn’t we hold them to account if they are corrupt, or push lies? Of course. But this dismantling of our faith in our leaders has gone much farther than simply fostering better accountability. At record levels, people say they do not trust our government to solve problems, at all, no matter who is in charge. Even our scientists can’t seem to break through, as major issues like global warming and vaccinations get distorted and lost amongst the wall of noise. People are desperate for leadership, for meaningful guidance, but our options are dwindling. Like a kid who has seen their parents become humanized, cut down from their flawless parental pedestal, we are searching for the safety and comfort that their inhuman pedestal-based existence once gave us. So, where can we possibly turn? For many of us, we turn to the aggregate quasi-authority of our friends and family. Others turn to celebrities or radio hosts or stand up comedians. For me, yesterday, it was NPR. 

This brings me back to distribute, then filter. I agree with Shirky that this is the paradigm that we are now moving towards, but when we are driven by fear, our ability to filter is so greatly diminished and we still end up turning to whoever is yelling the loudest within our cultural bubble to fill the authority void. In a sense, we are somewhere in transition from filter/distribute to distribute/filter, in a no man’s land, in a world with fewer and fewer trusted filters but with no ability to effectively filter for ourselves. Filtering is a luxury, and it is on all of us who can indulge in such a privilege to take it seriously and help others find the bandwidth to do so as well. And, on the other side of things, maybe we need to embrace that authority is never going to be as infallible as it once was. Instead of shuffling undercooked idols into the limelight and onto the pedestal, we need to put our faith in the process and the scientific method, letting our fantasies of superhuman parents that have all the answers fade into our past. No matter how terrifying it is, we might need to accept a full recalibration of how we filter, why we filter, and what is worth listening to. And then, hopefully, we can begin to drive our culture away from strongman authoritarianism and simple answers and towards true analysis and collaboration. Away from ideologues and belief echo chambers and towards humility and a healthy debate of ideas. This is what we must demand of our next generation of leaders. “Trust me” isn’t going to work anymore — you need to prove it. 

Directing my First Indie Film

I wrote this listicle for Paste. It is my first listicle! It is called "5 Things I Learned Making My First Indie Film." It is about my film 5 DOCTORS. Here is the listicle.

1. No, it’s not the same as making twenty short films

When my collaborators and I first began writing, all we had done was make short films. We weren’t worried, however. How different could it possibly be? Isn’t it basically like shooting a bunch of short films, all back to back?

Nope. As it turns out, making a feature film, even at a relatively low budget level, is a lot more like starting a small business than making a handful of shorts. You need to assemble a long-term core team, you need to raise money, and you need to inspire total strangers to trust your vision. Unlike a short, which can be made more or less in a creative vacuum, you need to be legally, financially, and emotionally ready to see your film as something that deserves to exist, will be worth watching, and could even be a potential business opportunity for other people.

As an insecure artist through and through, this was profoundly hard for me to embrace, but I quickly learned that if you want to keep people invested, literally and figuratively, over years and years, this is a required step in order to get to the good part.

2. Surround yourself with talented people who are excited to work

Early on, we wasted months pursuing people that wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. While reaching outside of your circle can sometimes be rewarding, it really served us well at many instances to hire cast and crew through our existing network rather than sit around hoping that Ben Affleck’s manager’s friend’s cousin would get back to us.

As it turned out, we could not have asked for a better, more driven, more inspiring cast and crew. They’re the kind of people you want to live in close quarters with for a month and play board games. (Hint: if you went to film school, the people I am describing are probably right in front of you.)

3. Always be refining, but stay connected to the inspiration

Another big difference between making a feature and making a bunch of short films is that you are forced to sit with a single idea for literally years. As someone who spent a long time making a new short video every week, I was very much not used to this. Besides, the idea for this film came from a short that I wrote in 2011, when I was 24 years old. 24? Who wants to pour their heart and soul and time and money into a film based on an idea that some idiot 24-year-old came up with?

Instead of going down that rabbit hole, I would instead try and focus on the root of the original inspiration, remind myself what excited me about it, and what still excites me about it. After all, any art is a snapshot of a moment in an artist’s creative life. With a multi-year project, you need to appreciate it for what it meant, what it means, and what it will mean in the future. All that being said, you should still constantly question your premise, refine the script, and improve, simplify, and heighten the story. But all of this can be done without undermining that spark of inspiration it originally came from.

4. Stay calm, even when it seems impossible

There is a lot pressure on a young filmmaker on the set of their first feature film. Investors visiting the set, schedule difficulties, money troubles, lack of snacks, you name it. There was an evening on our set where we had to decide whether to reschedule multiple exterior scenes that were slotted for the next day due the possibility of rain: if we made the wrong choice and got rained out, we’d lose an entire production day and cost the film thousands of dollars. And this was all while I was having a severe allergic reaction to the location we were shooting on!

Pressure, anxiety, and stress do not mix well with creativity, inspiration, and intuition. You need to believe, almost religiously, that the film will be better if you let yourself stay calm, present, and actually have fun. And while it may seem crazy in the moment, it ultimately serves the film best.

Just by the by: we ended up deciding to shoot that day. While it did drizzle a bit, we got everything we needed. And, when we were outside, my allergies got a lot better!

5. Ask for help, and then trust your gut

Since our film did not begin with a studio or network “green-lighting” it, there was never an “authority” in the room to tell us the “right” way of doing things. Instead, every decision was total guesswork. How do we get our script to actors? What lawyer do we hire? Do we even need a lawyer? How do film festivals work? Is the movie ten minutes too long? Is the movie total garbage? These questions would always lead to us seeking out advice from smarter, more experienced people that had been down this road before. This, unlike hiring, was a situation in which reaching outside of our circle served us well.

The scary truth, however, is that the world of independent film is a bit of a wild west, and so even the best advice can sometimes be useless if it’s been made obsolete by changes in the marketplace or in the technology of filmmaking and content distribution. So, that’s why I will end this by emphasizing that there is no “right way” to do any of it. It’s all guesswork, for everyone. This is terrifying, but also liberating. After all, you’re an artist. You’re not looking to join a conversation; you’re looking to start one.

Why Government Needs to Work

By many standards, our current political system in America is broken. Our Congress is barely able to pass a budget, confirm non-partisan appointments, or even deal with looming health or environmental crises in a timely manner. This is mostly thanks to Republican obstructionism, but it speaks to a larger issue of an adherence to the status quo amongst our leadership in both parties. More than almost anything else, our elites believe in the precarious balance of the system. In such an immense country with such diverse beliefs and interests, there is a pervasive view of our political system as a teetering tower that took years to construct, and many are only interested in the lightest little re-alignment this way or that when it comes to tweaking the tower. Anything too radical could risk unsettling our equilibrium and toppling the entire thing.

Belief in a natural equilibrium does not only exist in politics. In the documentary “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” the incredible British filmmaker Adam Curtis tackles this concept of equilibrium from a few angles. In the world of ecology, for example, the study of the natural world has been dominated for years by this notion of a “self-regulating ecosystem.” In nature there is a balance, an order. If the ecosystem is disturbed, it will always push to return to this previously established balance. It's a familiar and rather appealing concept, one that I think I may have been taught as a kid. As it turns out, however, this conception is a fantasy.

“[In the 1970s], a new generation of ecologists began to produce empirical evidence that ecosystems did not tend towards stability,” explains Curtis, “but that the very opposite was true: that nature, far from seeking equilibrium, is always in a state of dynamic and unpredictable change.” Contemporary ecologists have revisited ecosystems that were thought of as “models of stability,” and have discovered that, although there had been no outside interference, these systems had fluctuated wildly. Populations of predators and prey that were believed to be in "harmony" with each other had changed significantly for no apparent reason. In some ways, these ecosystems were unrecognizable as compared to what they were years earlier. Nature was always changing, always moving forward. “You get a disturbance, the forest doesn’t come back the way it was,” explains an ecologist in the documentary. “Disturbance comes along, and it resets the system to something new… you have to replace that assumption of the balance of nature. You have to discard the myth.” It seems that in nature, without active regulation, true stability is impossible. Decentralized self-regulation is not enough. Luckily, the natural world has very little interest in "cultural stability." Elk and lizards don't seem to mind chaos and unpredictability. The collective organism that is modern humanity, however, is quite different. 

Adam Curtis continues onward, discussing another kind of “self-regulating ecosystem,” in the form of the countercultural communes of the 1960s and 70s. In short, thousands of young people were moving out of cities and joining unregulated, egalitarian communities in the wilderness and deserts. “The communes deliberately had no hierarchy of control or authority,” summarizes Curtis. “Instead, the central idea was that everyone should see themselves as part of a system— a distributed network that could stabilize itself, just like the ecosystems in nature.” Yet again, while this theory of self-regulation is profoundly appealing in its simplicity, it also proved to be false for many of these communities. “Most lasted no more than 3 years, some for less than 6 months. And what tore them all apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished: power.” In a series of interviews with former commune members, Curtis shows that without any regulation, stronger personalities rose to the top, leaving the weaker personalities with no structured mechanism of opposition.  Differences in intelligence, education, confidence, charisma, and even physical fitness imposed an inescapable hierarchy on these communes that doomed them to fracture and failure. The lesson here is profound: contrary to one’s own instincts, equality is not a natural state. Without having a governmental and legal structure imposing true equality, these communities were helpless against the influence of powerful individuals.

In the last week, it has felt like powerful opposing forces in our country are pulling it apart at the seams. Our nation’s celebration of its independence was cut short when Alton Sterling was murdered by a police officer on the 5th, Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop while a four year old girl sat in the back seat on the 6th, and then five police officers were killed by a sniper on the 7th— all while the Republican nominee tweets anti-semitic memes and the Democratic nominee is scolded for being “extremely careless” with classified material by the FBI.  And all of it less than a month after Orlando. The conversation that I keep having over and over with my friends in the last few days has been about what we can actually do. Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.  Tweets and expressions of outrage aren’t enough. What do we do? Can the democratization of the internet age help us solve these problems through self-regulation and global collaboration? Or does change need to come from the top down? How does a modern society efficiently address their major systemic issues?  

I’ve thought about this question a lot in the last few days, and I kept coming back to one of the central theses of Adam Curtis’ documentary. “What we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, that it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas about what comes next. And just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.”  In other words, the computer age has propagated this idea of human beings as software, running on hardware in the form of the status quo. And while this mindset might seem harmless, it does in fact fully dismantle our ability to challenge that hardware, to rewire and rebuild it on an elemental level. 

Beginning in the 1980s, it became very fashionable to say that more government is never the solution. So fashionable, in fact, that even the Democrats found themselves saying it from time to time by the mid-90s.  This is an argument again rooted in a belief in self-regulation, in the free market. These people believe that the natural order of things should be given space to flourish, and government needs to get out of the way. What Adam Curtis’s film and our current political climate has shown, however, is that this belief in the myth of equilibrium has stunted our growth. Unlike smaller, more politically limber, often quite socialistic countries around the world, we are too encumbered with fear, bureaucracy, and inertia to actually fight for radical, sweeping reforms that can keep pace with our ever-changing world.  It may be partially due to the coupling of Republican politics with religion and ethnicity, as that association has created a political climate of tribalism and infallibility. The “problem” is never on the inside going out, it is always from the outside, coming in.

I am not saying that any one particular piece of legislation or act of governance could have saved Alton or Philando. Rather, I am saying that when a problem is systemic, that means the system needs an overhaul, and that means a willingness to re-configure the hardware. Clearly we all hunger for this overhaul, just look at the meteoric rise of Trump and Sanders. After all, as Curtis’ examples show, attempting to seek an original "equilibrium" is a futile pursuit of a debunked fallacy.  Every moment that passes where the system is not revised is one step closer to a system that is antiquated and irrelevant. If we are to learn anything useful from the computer age, it is that as soon as something is set in stone, it starts becoming obsolete. Instead of attempting to obsessively protect that teetering tower that the status quo has built, we should be purposely tearing it down. We should be taking a hammer to it, sifting through the pieces, and re-building it for this moment in history. 

So, what do we actually do? I think we need to start taking politics seriously. We need to understand that we cannot self-regulate, and that even open systems like Wikipedia have strict governing principles that maintain order and have evolved over time. Founding documents get amended. Government is not only our ally, but it is the only thing keeping humanity afloat, promoting true equality and allowing unprecedented coordinated action to solve problems that would otherwise destroy us all. We need to vote, to campaign, to run for office. Talk to people that you disagree with and engage them in a healthy debate. For God’s sake, we need work overtime to get anyone who only cares about partisan horse races and obstructionism out of office. We in the arts should try our best to make things that can affect and change the conversation in an unexpected way. We need to knock our culture and our government out of auto-pilot and aggressively establish the new normal. This won’t fix anything overnight, but it will begin our collective adaption to treating government not as a constant, but as a reflection of us, always in flux, always looking towards the horizon. And then, inevitably, this new normal will become obsolete, and it will have to come toppling down once again. And again. And again.

Let's Talk

Its been two days since Orlando. 

Religion, if misused, can cultivate a lack of empathy. It imbues the believer with a sense of profound correctness, which bolsters their faith and sense of cosmic stability but crowds their view to the other side of things. It erodes the foundational fact that we are all functioning from the same essential set of neurons. No one is good or evil, they simply are who they are. No one has the answers, they simply know what they know.

The tough issues should be the ones we talk about most. They should be the least taboo. We should be discussing these issues regularly, in our lives and in our media, and deepening our understanding of the contrasting point of view. Fear of a vigorous debate is a sign of blind ideology trumping meaningful politics. It is the desperate hoarding of your own personal philosophy to the detriment of our global society. 

So, enough is enough. Let's talk. Let's listen.


Conservatism and Fear

A few years ago, I read an article that discussed the evolutionary roots of liberal and conservative thinking.  I thought it was fascinating to realize that there are clear survival benefits to this dichotomy— essentially, the liberals want to go over the hill and find something new, while the conservatives want to hunker down and effectively maintain what is already here.

Both mindsets make sense, and both are necessary to keeping a culture afloat. Particularly, I imagine that the conservative point of view was quite pervasive during the beginnings of humanity. After all, why would the liberals amongst us want to risk everything we’ve built (literally), the crops we’ve grown, the safety and well-being of the children, all for the outside chance of finding something “new”? “New” is a waste of time, new is risky and uncertain and could end up killing everybody.  What we have is real, and what we have needs to be preserved for the sake of the species.  This, I believe, is the origins of the conservative ideology, and it is, by definition, built on a foundation of fear.

At an elemental level, fear is essential to survival. Without fear, we die.  This is why it has wormed its way into the wiring that sits beneath so much of what we do and what we believe.  Most notably, fear as a means of community preservation can be found in many crevices of our society, and much of the conservative outlook can be traced back to it.  A return to the “glory days of the past,” for example, in the form of “traditional” family values, is an example of community preservation.  A strong military and aggressive defense strategy is another prime example.  A distrust of government and an emphasis on personal responsibility can also be seen as an extrapolation of this same community preservation instinct— protecting oneself against outside interests that could potentially dismantle the carefully constructed system currently in place.

The issue with fear as a motivator is that it is non-intellectual. It is visceral, it is blunt and inarticulate.  On a molecular level, fear is actually designed to suppress rational thinking.  Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, talks about how children who have experienced high levels of trauma, who live in constant fear of pain or death within their home or their community, tend to be worse students because they are unable to effectively access their prefrontal cortex, the center of higher learning and rationality in the brain.  

“You're walking through the forest and you see a bear, right? So you can either fight the bear or run from the bear. That's kind of your fight or flight system,” Burke Harris explains to Ira Glass in an episode of “This American Life” from 2012. “Your body releases a ton of adrenalin, right? Which is your short-term stress hormone, and something else called cortisol, which tends to be more of a long-term stress hormone. And this dilates your pupils, gets your heart beating fast. Your skin gets cold and clammy. That's because you're shunting blood from anywhere that isn't absolutely necessary to the muscles that you need to be able to run from that bear. The other thing that it does-- now, you can imagine that if you're about to fight a bear, you need some gumption to fight that bear, right? So it kind of shuts off the thinking portion of your brain, right? That executive function cognitive part. And it turns on the real primal aggression and the things that you need to be able to think that you're going to go into a fight with a bear and come out on the winning side. And that's really good if you're in a forest and there's a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night. Right? And for a lot of these kids, what happens is that this system, this fight or flight response, which is an emergency response in your body, it's activated over and over and over again. And so that's what we were seeing in the kids that I was caring for.” Nadine Burke Harris’ research found that this fear-guided programming suppresses a child’s self-discipline, impulse control, as well as certain kinds of memory and reasoning.

I think these findings are incredibly thought-provoking, and I think their implications go beyond the kind of fear elicited by childhood trauma and abuse.  Fear, for all people, thrusts them into various gradations of this self-protective, non-intellectual, “us vs. them” mindset, even when that fear comes from the inside out.  As we all know, “threats” do not have to be objectively credible to elicit a fear response. For example, I have a terribly consistent and somewhat embarrassing fear of flying that will not be discouraged by any objective, rational analysis of the threat, no matter how many statistics I memorize. This is true as well of many conservatives, and especially within the Conservative movement in the United States.  Fear of immigrants, voter fraud, and the gay agenda are all easily dismissible with facts and figures, but these fears persevere nevertheless.  

Many studies have shown a correlation between increased fear and a shift to the “political right.”  The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies cites a handful of findings on the subject: “Oxley et. al (2008) found that individuals exhibiting strong physiological (i.e. startle-eyeblink) responses to threatening stimuli were more likely to endorse socially conservative positions aimed at protecting the social order. Vigil (2010) reported that conservatives are more likely than liberals to perceive emotionally neutral faces as threatening.” The studies go on and on.  Of course, I am not saying that all Conservative or Republican beliefs are grounded in debilitating fear. Historically, the Republican Party has promoted strong principles and viable solutions.  In our modern political climate, however, after thirty years of aggressive fear-mongering by the Republican leadership, a "political platform" is no longer the central unifier. Now, more than ever, fear is at the center.

This inevitably brings me to Donald Trump, a direct result of fear-mongering politics. Trump plays into fear-based thinking, validating it and promoting it to an unprecedented degree. Muslims, Mexicans, Democrats, the mainstream media, even other Republicans— everyone is an “other,” coming over the hill to destroy what they've so carefully built. Trump has the worst record that Fackcheck.org has ever tracked, and has blatantly spread rumors and lies on many occasions, but it never seems to make a difference with his supporters because their commitment to him is not predicated on empirical analysis and a detailed legislative agenda. All that matters is that we must “Make American Great Again” before the enemy has stomped out all our crops and toppled our houses. It is this rise of irrational fear that has accompanied the emergence of all tyrants, and the rise and inevitable fall of Trump will be seen as no different.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that our label-obsessed culture sometimes forgets that anything as complex and multifaceted as political identity will always exist in a spectrum. Much like the labels associated with sexual identity, “liberal” and “conservative” are labels that muddle a gradational reality.  If a genetic predisposition to be either more motivated by risk-taking (liberals) or by self-preservation (conservatives) exists on a spectrum, then there is always a path for the millions of people lost somewhere in the middle of the spectrum to nurture their way out of their labelled construct and into a more nuanced mindset.  

When it comes to children from abusive homes, Nadine Burke Harris and others agree that progress is attainable and has everything to do with intensive, well-rounded education that is informed by this research.  When it comes to fear-driven conservatives, this programming may be even more deeply engrained, but the solution is no different. For instance, one of the reasons that young people are significantly more liberal than their parents is that they are being born into and are being educated by the increasingly global community mindset of the digital age.  Obviously, the internet also breeds plenty of hate and insular thinking, but in many instances, it has helped to pop isolationist bubbles within all corners of our culture and shine a light on unhealthily antiquated “community preservation”-based attitudes. Racism and bigotry, while accepted in some circles, will always be condemned on the global stage, and impressionable young people who would have otherwise lacked this perspective are able to witness this and learn from it. Our leaders, our teachers, and our parents must use the power of this perspective expansion to in turn expand empathy and undermine the power of fear. 

If it is true that these tendencies towards fear-guided self-preservation are grounded deep in evolution, it is unlikely that we will ever fully escape them.  Trump will fail, as all tyrants do, but irrational fear isn’t going anywhere. It exists in all of us. We can only hope that, even if it is in violent fits and starts, we are moving along an arduous arc towards the frontal cortex, towards critical thinking and rationality. Every time there is a flare-up of widespread fear-based thinking, we must remain calm, understand the trauma or abuse at its core, and find a way to address it as best we possibly can. It may not make a significant difference, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

Another poem

I don't remember when I wrote this, but here it is.


You are layered like an onion right down to the baby you were.
Any layer lost is an inch of life stripped away,
an inch of growth ungrown,
an inch of scars unhealed.
So love every layer equal,
because without every single inch
you would need a whole new wardrobe.

Evil Does Not Exist

When I was a kid, I remember standing around with friends during recess one day and one of my friends pointing out a younger boy sitting alone under a tree and saying “Look at Tyler. Tyler is so weird.”  I remember finding this supposed statement of fact quite terrifying.  It was so static, so immovable.  Even as a child, I had some semblance of an intuition for how much changing and growing we all had in store for us in the years to come, so the idea that Tyler was weird and that was the end of that seemed like such an unfair ruling on Tyler’s value.  Tyler was weird, it was true, but what hit me in my gut about this moment was how lacking in empathy it was.  Blanket judgements of this sort can be a dangerously airtight way of viewing another human being.  It leaves very little room for the limitations of our own perspective, the possibilities of our own unconscious prejudices, not to mention this individual’s particular path through the world and what brought them to this crossroads with you.

I understand why certainty becomes very appealing around this age.  Everything is so in flux, even our own bodies refuse to remain consistent, we’re flailing outwards in search of anything rooted in the earth, unchanging and constant.  This is why we tend to dehumanize our parents and our teachers at this age, and think of them as “grown ups,” fully formed and without any desires or goals besides to care for children and to read The New York Times. I was a teacher for a year after college, and I felt more "adult" during that year than I ever did before or have since.  Not only was this due to the experience of shouldering true responsibility to others for perhaps the first time, it was also because I could feel them seeing me as a “complete idea,” so to speak.  I was not a “work in progress” like they were.  I was a very young teacher, but in their eyes, the mere fact that I was a teacher at all meant I was a leader, a mind molder, it meant I was not a searcher. They were the wide-eyed young protagonists at the early stages of their meteoric rise, and I was the humble and sage advisor that existed primarily as a plot device to further the protagonist's quest for greatness.  It was an empowering and validating feeling to feel them seeing me as humble and sage.  To this very day, when I speak with my former students who are now mostly young "grown ups" themselves, they rarely ask how I am doing on a personal level, and I do not offer it up.  It is still inspiring for them to keep me on a pedestal of “completeness,” and it is also in fact quite freeing for me to momentarily live in this shared reality where I have no problems or existential woes.  It’s a win win.

This childish concept of the “grown up,” of course, is a fiction.  As a child of divorced parents, I know firsthand what it feels like when you suddenly become aware of your parents as people, just like any other people, who are capable of making mistakes and wanting things they do not have.  In fact, nothing that we reach out to for support as our lives swirl violently around us is anywhere near as stable or reliably rooted as we try to convince ourselves. Our parents, our politicians, our celebrities, our religious leaders: everyone is just as insecure, irrational, and blinded by fear as everyone else.  The belief that they’ve cracked it, that they’ve attained a higher plane of existence and no longer run the same software as the rest of us, is appealing because it suggests that this higher plane is possible.  By believing that someone, something, anything, exists outside the fray of the human experience helps give us something certain that we can hold onto when we are facing down death and mediocrity. But, regardless of its appeal, it remains a fiction.  Of course, some of us have our shit together more than others.  Some of us have great wisdom.  But no one has leveled up beyond the level we’re all actively playing.  We’re all here, together, functioning from the exact same starting point.  

This brings me back to Tyler.  The reason this moment irked me so intently was because I knew, on some level, that Tyler was no better or worse than anyone else.  To define Tyler as "weird" is to pin down a moving target of genetic predisposition, education, growth, and experience.  The definition of Tyler will never be as certain as the definition of “hockey puck,” no matter how many years pass and no matter how old Tyler gets.  He will always, forever, be a “work in progress.”  Just like the rest of us.  He will always be a product of his broken, insecure, searching parents and his broken, insecure, searching society.  To claim your certainty on the weirdness of Tyler as being an objective, absolute truth on his inner nature would be just as offensive to claim a certainty on the nature of all teenagers, or all Muslims.  Your beliefs are not invalid, but they are inevitably colored by a million different histories, and can never be extrapolated much farther than a few feet in front of your nose.

Now, I know that the title of this little essay or whatever is “evil does not exist,” and I know that at this moment is when many people might perk up and say: “are you preaching moral relativism? Are you saying it’s okay for Saudi Arabia to oppress its women because it is morally right from their perspective?”  Of course not. I believe in cultural evolution, which means that while I may not believe in “absolutes” that exist outside of our experience, I believe there is a measurable moral center to humanity that is as old as humanity itself.

Let me back up for a second. We all know that the human animal is a weak, hairless, downright creepy looking mammal that had no business surviving its first winter.  The reason we survived is because of our ability to cooperate, to communicate, and to find common ground.  That first winter, we huddled together for warmth.  I know it sounds cheesy but “love,” in a sense, is the reason humanity was not run down by bears in the wilderness a thousand generations ago.  Community and empathy are the essential building blocks of the human spirit.  Our capacities for affection and collaboration are not unique in the animal kingdom, but they are perhaps the most highly evolved.  Like an elk’s antlers, or a giraffe's long neck, our capacity for love is freakishly overgrown. It is our unique advantage in the wilderness.  I believe that this core identity leads quite organically to a scientifically measurable core morality.  I don't think our morality is as complex or "unnatural" as some people might argue. In fact, it all comes down to the most basic building block of any successful cohabitation: the golden rule.  Treat others as you would like to be treated.  Empathize with their situation, truly understand their perspective as best as you can, and act always with this in mind.  Any action that furthers this idea is in line with our core identity, and any action that denies it is a result of an identity "crisis," in a way. It doesn't require much study of our history to see that an aversion to murder and violence, as well as an interest in cooperation and global flourishing, is clearly baked into our DNA by both genetic and cultural evolution, and our failure to live up to these ideals is not an issue with the original programming, but rather with everything else that gets piled on top of it.

So, why is it important to say that evil does not exist? I believe that this word is an antiquated and harmful word that our society no longer has any use for.  Years ago, it may have been advantageous for leaders to dehumanize their foes, to propagate a sense of “us vs. them” as a way to rally people around a country or an ideology.  In times of great anxiety and fear, whether that is puberty or the Crusades, it is profoundly appealing to reach out into the dark and grab something that feels solid.  For various societies at various times, that solid idea was that “we” are “good” and that “they” are “evil.” This kind of thinking simplifies the fear and makes it much easier to ignore.  Thanks to technology and education, it is becoming harder and harder for people to feel that "they" are in fact at all separate from "us." In truth, “they” are never “evil.”  Just like Tyler, they have travelled through their lives with more for less the same wiring as you, and the only differences are in their experiences and in their particular mutations.  Even as a Jew, I would never say that Hitler is “evil” — in fact, I think it does significant cultural damage to our understanding of the historical context of the Holocaust to call Hitler “evil.”  Somehow, through a mix of mental illness, warped thinking, and scarring experiences, he arrived to the mindset that he had.  By understanding this, we can better understand how to avoid such things from happening again, and we can better recognize these twisted ways of thinking in others going forward.

I think part of the issue is that people underestimate how limited and unreliable one’s own perspective can be.  I am personally obsessed with psychology experiments that remind me how easily the brain can be manipulated, and how much of our motivation and decision making is entirely out of our control.  Here are just a few of my favorites:

1.  In "split brain" patients, the verbal/rational side of the brain is unable to communicate directly with the more abstract/conceptual side of the brain. So, if he or she covers one eye, and allows information to enter only one side of the brain, psychologists can study what happens when something enters only one side and not the other.  In one experiment, the word “walk” is written on a card and is shown to only one eye, sending it into the non-verbal side of the subject's brain.  The subject would casually get up and begin walking.  The experimenter would then ask: “where are you going?” The subject would always give an answer, about stretching their legs or going to the bathroom or something like that.  They would have no conscious memory of seeing the word, because it wasn’t seen by the consciously literate side of the brain. Nevertheless, in an effort to rationalize this sudden gut instinct to “walk,” the logical side invents an answer. Crazy.

2.  The subject is asked to memorize a multi-digit number, and then walk down a hallway and repeat this number to an experimenter in another room.  As the subject walks down the hall, they are stopped by another experimenter and told that they will be given a free snack in exchange for their participation in this study.  They are given a choice: chocolate cake or fruit salad.  The longer the number that the subject is memorizing, the more likely they are to choose the chocolate cake.  This is because the chocolate cake is the visceral, “irrational” choice, whereas the fruit salad is the “logical,” more intellectual choice. That’s right, it only takes a few extra numbers to fully override an individual’s ability to make a logical decision, and instead we go with our "gut." Imagine what real life stresses must do to the same hardware!

3.  The subject is handed a cup of coffee before a written exam.  One of the questions on the exam is “what do you think of Joe?”  If the coffee the subject was handed was pleasantly warm, they are much more likely to “like” Joe than if the coffee was cold.  Our brains are the dumbest!

There are many incredible experiments of this sort out there, and while we might try to convince ourselves that we are much more “at the wheel” than the people in these experiments, we are wrong.  None of us are at the wheel.  All of us see neutral faces as menacing after watching scary movies.  All of us make unconscious "decisions" a significant number of nanoseconds before we are aware of these decisions consciously.  We are messy and unregulated and to assume that your perspective is “right” in any way that is larger than yourself is just plain silliness. 

So, here I am, almost 2 AM, and I’m still writing this.  What inspired me to write this?  I was listening to NPR, and I was overwhelmed with frustration and sadness at the backlash from the political right in reaction to the San Bernardino shooting on December 2nd and the backlash from the political left in reaction to the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27th. I have heard “evil” used by both sides, especially in the last few days with respect to Muslims.  Today, Trump put out a statement saying that if he were president, he would end all immigration by Muslims, and would not even allow American Muslims abroad to return home.  This is what inspired me to write this.

This idea that the world is as simple as “us” vs. “them” is a beautifully simple delusion. I get it.  It gives you purpose, forward motion, and makes you feel like you are a complete and flawless idea of a human being, crusading against those that are flawed, irrational, and morally unjust.  I understand why it has been the refuge of the existentially fearful for thousands of years.  But in truth, life does not have these delineations.  We are all good and evil, moral and immoral, just and unjust.  We all struggle to find our balance and live a joyful and just life in our own way, whether it is through man-made coping mechanisms like religion or community, or through our own personal searching and questioning.  We can no longer allow us to think of ourselves as separate, “above” our foes and “below” our leaders.  We can hate our foes and love our leaders, but we can never deny their humanity.  Acknowledging that we are all essentially the same, save for a few synapses here and there, is the most important step to reconnecting with our essential humanness that was baked in at the outset.  No matter what, we will always feel our feelings strongly, and hold deeply held convictions that we feel are true to the bottom of our hearts. This is okay.  What we cannot do is believe ourselves so God-like in our ability to understand the universe that we think our beliefs are cosmic truths that exist above and beyond our experience.  Everyone and everything is down in the same dirt, trying their best, and there isn’t a human, or belief, or system, or idea that didn’t have a foot on the same the exact same patch of dirt when it started out.

In these very scary times of extremist religious beliefs and violence, it has never been more important to listen, to emphasize, and to understand.  To have faith in the intrinsic good of emotionally healthy people, and to invest in education and outreach before we invest in retaliation and dehumanization. 

Empathy is our saving grace, and certainty erodes empathy.

“It’s weird to be a human. We get to think about things, we get to wonder. It seems like quite a privileged position in the universe. And I wouldn’t give it up for certainty because when you’re certain you stop being curious. And here’s the one thing I know about the thing you’re certain about; you’re wrong. Of course this is a paradox, how is it possible to know that you can’t know anything? It isn’t, it’s just a theory. And I remain open to being proven wrong.” - Charlie Kaufman

A poem

Here is a poem I wrote in ten seconds like two years ago. Perhaps by sharing this, it will motivate me to write things in this blog area.  Maybe yes, maybe no. No way to tell.  


It's official -- Kevin's parachute will not open.
O, inevitability! O, hurried earth!
How fortunate he is to be rushed towards so...
May we all accelerate in our direction into such open arms.