Input/ Output

2013, as every other year, was a year in which many good and many bad things happened. Things were created, and things were destroyed. Hopes were dashed, and hopes were lifted. Many breathed their last, and many breathed their first.

We all witnessed the spectrum of these happenings; they happened to all of us. The only real difference (excepting extreme circumstances) is how we responded.

The problems of the modern world are at once fewer and greater than those of ages past. Fewer because we’ve devised solutions for many of our troubles: our collective health is on the rise; disease on the decline. Access to education is broader than ever before. Journeys, today, take minutes or hours, where they once took days, weeks, or even months.

Some solutions have tackled less ambitious problems. We can order food without leaving our house, and it is delivered to our door. We can now boil water in a matter of minutes. Books, gateways to other worlds, can be had for a trivial amount, and we can see the face of another soul, from halfway around the world, by clicking a couple of buttons on a screen.

And yet. And yet. We criticize. We lament. We complain. We deride.

This derision is popping up more and more on the web.

The above tweet is from Lizz Winstead, comedian and founder of The Daily Show. She’s an incredibly smart and funny woman, and I highly recommend you follow her. That said, she has a tendency I find odd, but not unusual. Like anyone with a public persona and a large following, she opens herself up to ridicule (and flat-out dickheadedness) every day. That’s not her fault, of course; it’s the nature of the medium. What I find odd is that Lizz so rarely retweets or in any way publicizes positive interactions on Twitter. Instead, she emphasizes only the mouth-breathing lunatics that try to pick a fight with her.

That tendency, from what I can tell, is not a Lizz tendency, but a human one. I’ve noticed the same behavior in others with large followings. Salmon Rushdie comes to mind, and a few others.

And I get it. This has happened to me, and I understand the compulsion to call these idiots out, to open their hatred to public ridicule. I understand, too, that the problem is not limited to the internet, but is a more underlying feature of human nature- we emphasize the negative far more than the positive. But if Thoreau was right, and the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for something, Winstead is paying a high price for these trolls.

This phenomenon is also playing out across various media publishers. Mat Honan writes a controversial piece, and Mark Wilson calls bullshit. Biz Stone makes something, and Selena Larson explains why it sucks.

Again, I don’t think this is an anomaly; I think it’s one of the more pernicious aspects of human nature. It’s the same part of us that succumbs to gossip, or writes a snarky tweet to NBC after they cancelled Community, or criticizes someone else’s parenting ability.

It’s a way to make us feel superior.

That is the only thing that’s accomplished by criticism of this kind. The other kind of criticism—invited, constructive, helpful—is another thing entirely. It’s not only welcome, it’s necessary to a healthy relationship, to a functioning society. It lifts, it corrects, it inspires, it changes.

And that change is central to life. It’s not the exception, it’s the rule. Every organism, in fact, maintains a sense of constancy only through its openness to being modified by its environment, as David Barash recently explained:

Paradoxically, maintaining a state of apparent constancy (i.e., life) requires continual openness to change, in this case exchange with an organism’s environment. When that exchange ceases, so does life; although even then, every body continues to change, whether via decomposition, incorporation into another body, or incineration.

We regularly underestimate the relationship we have with our environment, with what we expose ourselves to, and what we expose others to. That relationship may, in fact, extend further than we ever thought possible. In the documentary film I Am, Rollin McCraty of Heartmath electronically links filmmaker Tom Shadyac with a small amount of yogurt, the composition of which is monitored for the duration of the connection. When Shadyac refers to (and consequently thinks about) things such as his lawyer, the actual composition of the yogurt changes to reflect Shadyac’s state of mind. It's not some abstract emotional impact we have on our environment, and consequently, others- we actuallly create physical changes in the people and things around us (perhaps that's why misery loves company, and why laughter is contagious).

The purest essence of what it means to live well is being conscious of both what we let in (to our minds, to our bodies, to our psyche) and what we emit (through facial expressions, status updates, deeds, work, and even attitude). And while we can control our consumption to a certain degree, we are not an effective filter. Try as we might, we still let in harmful things, and that’s not about to change. What can change, however, is the process by which we synthesize the input once it’s already inside of us. Just as a healthy person will better digest a meal than an unhealthy person, so a healthy mind will more effectively recognize and filter those thoughts, dreams, and emotions that compose our mental state at any given time.

That means that, though we can’t control the input to a great degree, we can control the output, which, in turn, affects the next input. When Lizz chooses to put more emphasis on the hateful backlash to her own thoughts, she recycles, albeit unwittingly, that hatred, telling the world that ignorance and hatred are welcome here; I will nourish it. And the cycle continues.

If all of this sounds complicated, thorny, even muddy, that’s because it is. There is no one great insight I can give, no one sentence I can write that will fully encompass the strength that emotional and mental muscles need to combat hatred, or ignorance, or resistance to change. It is, as they say, a process. It’s not knowledge that strengthens those muscles, it’s the very process by which knowledge is acquired. That process begins with the simple, deliberate intention to be more aware of our relationship to our environment, be it the birds overhead or the keyboards at our fingertips.