The book: Chatter by Ethan Kross.
Is the author smart/do they know things I don’t: Indubitably.
Does the main idea seem true: That our brains, left unchecked, often dedicate themselves to making things worse rather than better? Yes. That we can stop that process? Less clear.
Moment where I was like, oh boy, here we go again: Tie between page 11’s monolithic encounter with “most Asian countries,” and page 49’s uncritical reference to the marshmallow test.
Single most awesome thing in the book: I am completely in love with the the concept of non-deceptive placebos in which you tell someone that you’re giving them a placebo and you explain to them why it will work and then it works anyway.
Thing that seemed like it could be useful if I actually tried it, which I didn’t: Thinking about yourself/your situation in the third person to stop an impending freak out. (Shades of Joan Didion’s paper bag — do you just feel so much like Richard Nixon that it breaks you free of yourself?)
Thing that actually did influence my behavior: There’s a whole chapter about rituals and how they help us do better. I, historically, have viewed my little daily rituals as the equivalent of a weighted vest for running, to be jettisoned in the hour of need in favor of shaving a couple seconds off my mile. A built-in margin, so that when exhaustion overtakes me I can still manage the necessary. Chatter suggests that this is the wrong way to think about it, that the benefit of the rituals actually increases as your need does. So as the week dragged on and I felt increasingly disinclined to do anything I tried clinging tighter to my rituals. I don’t know if it helped or not. It was a pretty good week, but as I mentioned in the last post, my meds have finally kicked in, so maybe it would have been just as good if I had skipped my physical therapist-recommended twenty supermans (supermen?).
Thing That I Would Like To See The Numbers On, Sir: There’s this whole concept of “invisible support” for your suffering loved ones, where instead of saying, how are you? while making a sad face at them you do things to make them feel better and don’t ask for recognition. So far so good. But then the book shoves into the same invisible support category things like doing more of the housework and things like asking a third party in your loved one’s presence how they survived a similar situation. Those two things do not seem comparable to me; one of them would really piss me off.
Thing That I Refuse To Believe, No Matter How Many Numbers You Show Me: That looking at a picture of the woods on your computer can approximate the mental health benefit of walking in those same woods.
Thing That I Have Way Too Many Thoughts About: So the mechanism by which the daily rituals are supposed to be helpful has to do (as I understand it, which may be wrong — I am trying to be fair, but I am not particularly trying to be rigorous) with making you feel in control. Which you are not, not even a little bit. Control is always and only an illusion.
But an illusion that can make us do better. According to the book, and I am prepared to believe it based on my personal experience. Because I have always been a messy office person and I have always felt like my stacks and papers were integral to keeping everything in front of me so that I did not lose track of things and then one day pre-pandemic we were going to be inspected for OSHA purposes or something and I was told to put everything away. Nobody cared about me putting it away in order, they just wanted it tidily stowed. And it turned out that having my office look tidy, even though all it meant was that I had shoved my stacks of paper into drawers, was way better and made me more productive and likely to get things done, and over time my office got legitimately tidier and more organized, and at the moment my office looks like the office of someone who has things under control. An illusion, but an illusion serving me better than the alternative. At which point it starts feeling a little bit like a version of the Matrix in which your options are knowing the truth and also being totally unable to fight the computers or whatever, or moving back into the world of delicious steaks, and by doing so striking back, the only down side being that the actual truth of the world will grow shadowy and dim to you.
For me the fear is that I will start to believe that my little burnished rituals, my physical therapy and Duolingo, actually do give me some kind of control. Which, and I cannot say this often enough, is a lie. I mean, if I wanted to end this on an inspirational note, I could talk about how because I am trying to preserve my little rituals, to act like someone in control of her life, I went out paddle boarding yesterday, which is the most Northern California thing I could possibly do, but was also so beautiful, the kind of beauty that makes you wonder what the hell you are doing with the rest of your life when that kind of beauty is out there for the taking, and I was on the water for half an hour which is not actually very long but felt like a huge thing for someone who had back surgery this summer and who spent the year before that wincing every time she stood up, and as a result today my shoulders are sore and I am exhausted but probably better for it, and that’s a reality of its own, a reality as valuable as the reality in which we are all atoms born along by ceaseless currents etcetera. But, honestly, giving that speech feels like a betrayal of what I actually believe. It’s not that it’s not true, but it’s true in such a contingent way, and is the world actually made any better and richer by the fact that I had a quintessentially middle-aged and bourgeois experience, even if it was one of overwhelming and transcendent beauty?
Useful Counter-programming: This tweet, which I think about all the time.