Where parallels cross

Interesting bits of life

Slow Growth, Insomnia and Curing Symptoms

There are moments in your life when, as a colleague would say, a bunch of scattered dots becomes a cheetah. That is to say that all of a sudden a pattern emerges and you can define it. And as Tom DeMarco said in his book Slack: when you learn something that is significant for you, your first reaction is to panic.

I guess today I panicked.

It started while I found myself in a project proposal about inducing insomniacs to sleep by using digital screens. James Lech, this smart scientist from South Africa, is dedicating his time into exploiting light to influence people behavior. In a gist (my understanding of) the idea is that you press a button and the screen on which you are watching a movie starts flickering in an imperceptible way, slowly and implicitly bringing you in the arms of Morpheus.

And while we were debating the ethical concerns of this, my brain slowed down and gave an order to information it gathered so far.

Oh my, panic! We need to slow down. And for we, I mean the whole circus.

The main pain point that started the thought is: why are we trying to put people to sleep in the first place? In the worst case scenario, they have a persistent disorder. I know something about mental illnesses, and in my experience I can tell you: it is just disorder. Returning to health requires you to look at the mess, accept the mess, and to take the painful but insightful journey of ordering the mess. Ideally you need a shoulder on which to cry while doing this.

Note: the insightful part is fundamental to avoid making a mess again. I humbly believe this applies to burnout as it applies to sleep. And the point that everybody gets lost at is the observation bit. In permaculture literature observation is key: you cannot change an ecological system without understanding it, and you cannot understand it without quietly and patiently looking at it (look at the work by Donella H. Meadows for good foundations in system thinking).

Now, in my experience observing yourself is more difficult than observing a garden and seeing where those unwelcome slugs that love your salad come from. Observing how your current self is making you insomniac/burnt out/unhappy is a ugly self-discovery experience. Who wants to say I am imperfect? Well, apart from Gilberto Freyre who stated: "If it depended on me, I would never be ripe, nor in the ideas nor in the style, but always green, uncomplished, always experimental".

People take the pill instead. The easy way out is doing more of the same and when the body~spirit is painful just give it a palliative (e.g., a pill/coke/light). That is blinding yourself and accumulating extra damage. That is what the subpar leaders end up doing when they surround themselves of 'yes'-men. In Good to Great Jim C. Collins explains that great leaders work on facts no matter how painful those sound. I want to be a great leader of my body and spirit. Bare, cruel facts give you visibility and open prospects to action. First accept the facts and then try to understand them, maybe act on them. This is lengthy. But what else have you better to do? I mean what else than to care about yourself?

That question sparked the memory of the label on the seat in front of you that your hostess gently invites you to look at before the flight starts: the adults put the inflatable jacket on themselves before the children. Once they can protect themselves they are in the position of taking care of others. It is on the label; it is mandatory; it makes common sense. It also applies to your well being.

Society/companies/schools are requiring people to keep going with whatever they do no matter the pain they feel. They are also making the pain people feel something that lowers their status and so something to hide. And they are demanding to do this more efficiently. Mental health issues are normal because we are walking wonders (consider just how amazing it is that your eyes can perceive this text and you can make sense of words!) but we are still so fragile. As Scott Alexander says in his Meditations On Moloch: "Competition and optimization are blind idiotic processes and they fully intend to deny us even one lousy galaxy". I want to get to the end of my life and say "I really explored myself" as Carol S. Dweck tells an old lady said in her book Mindset. I would despise to say: "I wasted my life, but in the most efficient way".

This reminds me of the urge I felt of hiding in a Tibetan monastery for a year when I heard people deciding that young people lives where more valuable than old people's ones during the COVID-19: I really wanted extra time to explore myself in depth and find out how blind I am myself to the enormous value elders have to offer to our society.

This is what I mean by slowing down the whole circus: we need time to understand ourselves and our evolving community. Someone would think life is too short for that. Bertrand Russell wrote: "Most men would rather die, than think. Many do". I am fine with that, but I would like to shape a society that encourages you to think, to take your time, and to address issues together with some like-minded person. If you want to rush, work 120-hours weeks like Elon Musk, and burn like a flame, you are free to do so. I would find it surprising if that is the desire of the majority. In any case I demand to be in charge of my time and for the "normality" stereotype to be a healthy one. One that paves the road for sustainable growth, not rushed consumption.

This was my 'panic' experience. I saw in a moment that as a society we are causing our own pain and focusing on efficiently curing the symptoms of this. Instead, let's slowly learn about ourselves and, once we are ready, about the others.

P.S.: if you suffer insomnia due to anxiety, please try what Jane McGonigal suggests in SuperBetter: "As soon as you feel your nerves, say "I'm excited" or "Get excited!" to yourself. Out loud. Say it a few times. "I'm excited". "Get excited!"". Apparently anxiety and excitement are the same thing in the brain, and you can easily exchange the one for the other with a bit of "mind-fu".