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May 31, 2021

Everyone has a trigger

We all can be triggered into experience an involuntary emotion. This is not about particularly fragile or very traumatized people. If you do not have a trigger, you have not lived a life. We all carry treasures and trauma, some much more than others, no doubt. Growing up is as often painful as it is delightful. The self is nothing but an intricate ornament of psychic scars. The trick is to wear it with dignity. Some stimuli will elicit an emotional response you are unable to do anything about.

I lived in the Russia until the age of 29. That is half of my life. It shaped me in all sorts of ways, both good and bad. The emotional bank of childhood memories comes from there. Sometimes a random smell will take me straight to Kulunda Steppe, and my grandfather’s home. The rich, pungent aroma of drying grass at night, the smell of dirt with a tinge of mushrooms, dung and tomato plants. All of it blended with insects chirping, the horse’s soft stomping and a long cow sigh from the barn. Sometimes I can see the ancient floor rug in our apartment on the fourth floor of a white brick building, with a weird number 4/1. I looked for caterpillars in the inner yard’s bushes. Or a mesmerizing yellow light of my first-grade classroom and a hypnotic, calm voice of my first teacher Anna Ivanovna. Those triggers are welcome, for they let me time travel. They allow the soul to be rinsed through with a warm and lazy summer rain.

My Russian life also built up anxieties, over which I have very little control. For example, when someone tells me we must achieve more ideological unity, my gut reacts before my mind does. It feels like violence, even if it was not intended as such. I had enough unity. When I am unable to discuss an idea and am expected to accept it as is, my whole being rebels. When I expected to be silent, and only listen – no matter how worthy the speaker is, no matter how compelling their story is - I tense up. I want to come out and meet that story with my story, so we can find common experiences. When someone expects me to say something I do not believe in, I literally become mute. Those who lived in totalitarian societies can relate to these feelings, and perhaps others can as well.

Like anyone else, I cannot change who I am. We are not in full control of our triggers. The very notion of a trigger implies reaction that is hard to overrule. Most people eventually learn to manage their behaviors, but not all emotional reactions. It is best if we learn to accept that everyone has a stock of those automatic reactions and be tolerant to each other’s quirks and foibles. A human soul is a weird and spooky place; some of its corners are far from tamed.

May 24, 2021

Imagining the end of the pandemic

The ability to imagine is the most useful feature of human mind. It has limitations, too. For example, many of us are having hard time visualizing the return to campus after the pandemic. We all know we will, but the picture in our minds does not quite come into the focus. The trick it – imagination is fed by sensory perceptions. It cannot produce images out of nothing.

I spent a couple of days on campus for our CARmencement. During the pandemic, the campus looked like a ghost town, with eerie feeling. However, in those two days, it was full of people, brimming with life, sunny and as beautiful as I remember it. Ans yes, suddenly I knew how it will be once we are back. It all suddenly made sense. If you want to trigger your imagination, create a situation that is similar to what you want to imagine. The little trick really helps.

It is amazing how hard it is to change our behaviors, even if it is changing back to what one considered to be normal. The various governments do not help much. In the government world everything takes time to prepare. People who run large social systems always think a few months in advance. They constantly count back from the future horizon to the present. There is always a lag between what the best science have and what is happening on the ground. OK, no surface cleaning apparently needed. But tons of the cleaning solutions are ordered, contracts signed, people hired, money encumbered… Large ships take time to turn. OK, CDC says no masks. However, there are policies that local and state governments have in place. They need to be rewritten, rescinded, approved, communicated, etc. none of that can be done in a day. Here we are wearing unnecessary masks, waiting for the governmental gears to turn. That’s OK, we can wait a little longer.

May 10, 2021

Do not judge a movement by its fringe

Any social movement, progressive or conservative, national or liberatory, has its excesses. They all develop a fringe that takes things too far. Taking things too far is a part of the human history. There will always be a few people that use the movement’s idea for personal gain and for a power grab. And yes, from time to time the fringe takes over the entire movement, at least temporarily. Something like that is happening with the Republican Party right now, but I am pretty sure it will eventually self-correct or split.

Russian liberals, traumatized by almost a century of left-wing totalitarianism, keep seeing its ghosts in the American and European progressive movements of today. Many were horrified by the MeToo, the environmentalist (hilariously scared of Greta Thunberg), and by BLM. They all make the same mistake of judging the entire movement by its most radical fringe. The error makes one to see real risks, but dramatically overestimate its scope. The fact is, MeToo produced very few excesses, with the story of Al Franken the only high-profile example that comes to mind. With the exception of a few questionable PETA stints, the mainstream Green movement continues to take balanced, sensible approaches. If you look at BLM website, it spells out a program for non-violent change, a very much within the boundaries of mainstream of American politics. Equating the movement with a few looters is unfair to the extreme.

It is not just the Russians; some Americans make the same mistake, taking the fringe to represent the whole. This error is unfortunately amplified by the opposing political parties. It helps to mobilize the base but is self-defeating in the long run. Within each of these and other movements, there are multiple institutional mechanisms and forces to keep the movement from sliding into the margins. If you see a bit of a smoke coming out of your neighbor’s trash bin, do not run around shouting “Your house is on fire, you are going to die a horrible death right now!” Just find the hose and spray some water into the bin. Beware of actual scale of a danger.

May 3, 2021

And here is what I’ve learned about life so far

The highway called life is crowded, filled with small and smallish things, with accidents, happenings, talks, decisions, encounters - the meaning of each is known, while the meaning of them together is almost always elusive. I wonder – why is this and that, what am I supposed to learn from this conversation, that little drama? This one thought or that one observation, little insights and many errors, conclusions, illusions, allusions. Is this the curriculum? Who designed it? What am I supposed to learn from all that?

You always learn about people. Their thoughts and actions, quirks, and gifts – the world of other people is absolutely inexhaustible and unpredictable. Yes, you see patterns eventually. But it is also a universe consisting of multiple huge worlds, absolutely beautiful in their uniqueness. Every person is a planet, a rich, juicy, exquisitely painted picture of the entire visible universe that is different from any the next person possesses. Only rarely do I get to see this, maybe a couple times a year. I look at faces of people around me and hear many gentle echoes of their worlds subtly talking to each other. This is the music of the spheres, as nuanced and as inexhaustible as a galaxy. I begin to feel what the ancient Greeks meant by agape. The Greeks knew the many forms of love: eros, philia, ludus, agape, pragma, philautia, storge, mania. This one is agape. It is when I can marvel about many others, feel their pain and joy – all at the same time; when I can hum along the great symphony of the human multiverse. Wow, this is how he thinks, that is how she sees the world. People wear their scars like badges of honor, learning, striving, figuring things out, and yet hopelessly lost, just like me. Just like me and so not like me.

The curriculum is also about yourself. You learn your limits and sources of strength, your triggers, pet peeves - from living. We are not born with knowledge of ourselves. The self is a subject of discovery, just like the rest of the world. Children know very little about themselves – this knowledge is panned like gold flecks from a river bed, with about the same dreadful efficiency. The nooks and crannies of one’s soul are as infinite as the worlds of other people. The smells of childhood and the colored pictures of the life story, regrets and memories, melodies and desires – all these can come down as an avalanche, only to get completely still the very next moment. “Oh, this is how this thing works” – you think about yourself, every time surprised at the obvious. How could you live with yourself for that many years, and not know something very basic about your own self? Who knows, who cares, who gives. Life is like travel; the whole point is to find something you did not know was there. Perhaps if you don’t learn anything new about other people and about yourself, it is time to check your pulse and see if you’re still alive.