If you’re reading this and are middle aged (especially a man) you’re depressed and don’t have any friends. That’s right, I’m talking to you and so are big industries who capitalize on your sad state like pharma, shrinks, and the tornado of advertisers who prey on your pleas for help. Us middle-aged people are crying out for help, just like our babies who we put in nursery rooms by themselves. By now, our kids have left, our marriage may have left, and all the friends we used to have are on their own little islands, suffering just like us. We’ve all over-declared our independence, our society has built a super complex, reinforcing system around it. I’m one of these poor souls, too: a middle aged guy with my wife as my best friend, whose put everything I have into my family and most of those kids are now adults who have moved on and left poor, old me feeling really isolated and lonely.
When you live in the Bay Area you pass tons of folks who appear to be mad. Most of us don’t spend enough time focusing on how our culture handles folks on the spectrum of some level of mental illness. When you think about it— the range of “madness” ranges from people with very serious mental illness to people who don’t socially fit in. As you look back across history, you can see just how we’ve dealt with it, who we’ve blamed for it, and what crazy treatments we’ve put in place.
Who better to talk about that than someone who studies it for a living. Andrew Scull, this week’s guest, is exactly that person. As a professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego, he’s written a ton of books on this subject over decades.
Way back before capitalism, it used to be that self-welfare was the key part of our lives. We would face formidable physical and situational challenges and have to endure them, alone and with our tribe. It was likely those trials were the most meaningful experiences for our prior relatives— the very thing they could depend on and take comfort in. Today we’ve lost that ability. Comfort is handed to industries that insulate us for a fee. We spend money and depend on hermetically sealed homes, cars, drugs, food and clothing. If things get rough we rely on doctors, pills, and booze. But recently, there’s a rising voice that we’ve come to the end of the Western Medical Model. An awareness that those things don’t make life better anymore. That there are other roads. Some, like this week’s guest Wim Hof, believe it’s time to tap back into our natural abilities. That they’ve been forgotten. If there’s anyone that knows about getting out of their comfort zone, it’s him. His journey started when--with four children at home--his wife took her life by jumping out an eight story window. To deal with his grief, he went out into the extreme cold. Since then, he’s shown through examples of enduring extreme cold like being submerged in ice for nearly two hours or using his mind to ward off disease, that anyone has amazing power to face anything and literally self-regulate. He’s now using the best scientists in the world to back up what he’s learned and therefore challenge science, culture and the very industries we’ve come to assume are the answer.
We’re born into a culture where trillions of decisions have already been made by the people who have lived before us. The entire human world is constructed of these expectations, so by the time we join that world as an adult, it’s pretty easy to feel like most of our decisions are limited and oftentimes made for us. When that operating system is screaming to go to school, get a job, buy all stuff that makes your life better, have some kids and borrow enough money to make it all happen, it can feel like your margin for independent ideas and motivation just got squashed. It’s no wonder the decisions we think we’re making don’t feel very rational. No wonder how we can completely lose the motivation to keep slaving away. If you were an alien watching our evolution, you’d see a few big decisions but on a day-to-day basis we’re blind to how the decisions we’re making affect not only our own life but the future of our culture.
How do you tell the story of your life? Turns out a big part of your personality are the snapshots of experiences you assemble and re-assemble of your past and future. Of course, that means that you can curate and shape those things, refine them based on what works for you and how others respond. When you stop and think about it, we have a lot more control over the frames we choose then we think, a lot more control of how we design our own narrative and how it works with our character. The more aware we are of the story we want to tell with our lives, the clearer our choices for the future can be. That means that the narrative habits we have, the micro-stories we tell, get hardened over the years, don’t really need to be that way.
Just take a moment and ask yourself, “does my life seem gripped by an assembly line of chores which, as the years go on, create an undertow of sameness?” When you look back and curate your life story, how many exceptional experiences have you had? In western culture it’s not okay to embrace the things that don’t fit neatly into acceptable boxes, we’re meant only to be distracted and addicted with the things that fuel our capitalistic machine. But that’s not the way it is around the world. For some it’s more unusual not to have had out-of-body experiences, not to have communed with the dead, not to completely lose your identity. It’s experiences like those that add dimensionality, texture and deeper understanding to our lives. They can be sprung from the deep recesses of our brains, whether we’re asleep or whether we participate in rituals that release them.