I Don’t Care if Our Attention Spans Are Shorter

The other day I heard a statistic that caused the people around me to gasp in horror: people now have attention spans shorter than a goldfish, only 6 seconds. Shock! Amazement! Terror! Technology will destroy us and we won’t be able to have meaningful lives or relationships anymore and we’ll never learn things or grow as people because we can’t focus for more than 6 seconds.

Fun fact, it took me more than 6 seconds to write that paragraph, uninterrupted. All I did was write that paragraph, for more than 6 seconds. I wonder if attention span science isn’t as great as it’s cracked up to be? Or perhaps our attention spans change based on context. Huh.

But if I’m honest, I actually don’t give a rat’s ass if our attention spans have grown shorter. We’ve been hearing this same kind of complaint about new technologies for literally thousands of years. Our dear pal Socrates was opposed to writing because “[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” (From the Phaedrus).

People have complained about technologies ranging from the printing press, to the telephone, to television and beyond, convinced that each of these technological improvements will make us less intelligent, or maybe just destroy society. Amazingly, here we all still are, capable of functioning, making new discoveries, improving technology even further, and maybe still remotely intelligent.

Because here’s the deal: our minds change in reaction to the world around us. We are adaptable and flexible beings. We change to fit the environment that we live in. Perhaps we do have worse memories than the ancient Greeks did. But you know what? I don’t care. There is nothing inherently better about being able to remember more things. The world that we have today is one in which we don’t need to remember things as much as we used to. It’s incredibly rare that we won’t be around a computer, phone, or other device that allows us to look things up. Being able to remember vast stores of information is no longer actually very helpful.

Instead, what is helpful is being able to sort through huge amounts of information, cope in a setting where there are many competing distractions, and suss out what is important or useful or true at any given point. No one seems to be asking whether the changes that are happening in human brains (if they are in fact happening) are USEFUL. Are we losing memory to make space for quick shifts in focus that allow us to notice the hundreds of distractions but still move back to what we were doing before? Are our brains beginning to pick up more of an ability to focus on multiple things at once? Why do we always assume change is bad?

Nowhere are we taking the time to ask what we get out of the change. Amazingly, things like this tend to happen for a reason other than “kids these days.”

I can’t help but feel as if all this worry about shorter attention spans and bad memories is just more angry old men yelling at clouds. I have yet to see any criticisms of these changes in the human brain that actually tell me WHY it’s bad for our brains to change in these ways. They all assume that we’re already on board, that we all want really long, focused attention spans or great memories. And it seems like the reason that they assume we’re already on board is because those are things we’ve prized in the past so they must be good now, even though the world is different now, our needs and abilities are different now, work is different now. Different is not less, even if we couch the difference in terms of deficits.

So no, I don’t care if our attention spans are shorter. I care if we are functional in the world we’ve got. And overall we seem to be doing pretty well.

Confidence as a Behavior

There are some things that we tend to think of as traits, things that you naturally are or aren’t. You can act outside of your natural tendency for a while but after a while it will be too exhausting or feel too uncomfortable. There are some things that psychology has found do tend to be like this: introversion/extroversion, neuroticism, and the other Big Five traits, but it seems to me that a lot of the things we view as traits are emotions plus behaviors. We can’t necessarily change our emotions but we can change our behaviors to gain some of the social benefits of traits we don’t have.

Here’s a thing:

I am not generally a confident, jump in and get stuff done kind of a person. I often seem lazy because if I don’t know that I’m supposed to do something I don’t do it. I wait for instructions, I need some coaching, and I need to know the “rules” of whatever situation I’m in before I feel comfortable making decisions and choosing my own actions. I’ve found that this need for comfort has really gotten in the way of my ability to be the kind of friend/housemate/employee/etc. that I want to be, and so I’ve decided that I want to change it.

Now I can’t just make myself feel confident. I will never be able to choose not to be worried. I will never naturally start doing things unless I really think about it and choose to do those things. But what I can do is mimic the behaviors of confident people. The other day I was playing basketball with some friends. I’m real bad at basketball. But I told myself that I was going to at least try to do things, even if I couldn’t do them well. That meant not pulling myself back if I was going to make contact with someone, running hard, and trying to notice what other people were doing to make myself try it too. I’ve been doing this in all areas of my life. “Are there things that could be done right now? I will do them.”

That behavior of simply going ahead and doing something whether you’ve been asked or not often gets read as confidence, or at least willingness to try (which is its own brand of confidence). I still don’t feel confident, but I’m getting read that way more often. I may not have looked super confident on the basketball court, but I made myself get up and try anyway, which looked much better than my first impulse (which was to hide behind my boyfriend).

It’s important to distinguish between behaviors that are helpful and emotions and traits that are valid. My shyness and nervousness are valid. However a lot of the time they aren’t helpful if I let them dictate my actions. What is helpful is recognizing that I need a few moments to assess a situation. Sometimes that’s even more helpful than having the first impulse to jump in, as I get a minute to figure out what’s going on and analyze things a bit before I start acting.

What I want to specify is that there’s nothing wrong with a lack of confidence when we’re talking about the emotional side. But there are behaviors that are separate from traits that we can notice and change. And each of us gets to decide for ourselves how far we’re willing to go in behaving in ways that don’t feel natural to us.

It might seem straightforward and obvious, but realizing that my emotions are separate from my actions is pretty exciting to me. I’m not required to continue acting within my comfort zone. Of course it takes more emotional energy, but if there’s something that’s frustrating to me about myself, I can do it differently.

Mindfulness has been incredibly helpful with this in letting me notice what’s going on around me so that I can be a little more intentional about what I do. Taking the time to notice what behaviors I find impressive or admirable in others is also helpful. Then I can start to notice the areas where I could do the same. I will never be confident as an internal trait. But I can make myself confident enough that I can do things I am afraid of. And my reflective nature was what helped me see that in the first place.

 

The Logic of Fear

I’ve been a bit quiet lately and a big part of that is that I’ve been in the midst of a move to Cork, Ireland. I’m finally starting to get settled (I’ve been here for 3 days) and process this fairly large decision. Part of this has been a great deal of panic, anxiety, and worry. I’m feeling the beginning of a serious depressive episode creeping into my mind, and I’ve been fairly vocal to friends and family about my worry that this was not a good decision for me. Many of them have responded (quite logically) with sentiments like “you’re more than your emotions”, “you don’t have to let feelings dictate how you behave”, and “feelings will pass”.

These things are all true, but they haven’t helped me to feel any less afraid and they don’t get to the heart of why I’m afraid, or even address what I believe is a very real and logical worry that is at the heart of the anxiety and distress. For most people there is a limit to the harm that emotions can do. You might feel something unpleasant for a while, and then it will pass. However I have very real evidence that my emotions are not something to be taken lightly, and that “just emotions” can make things a living hell and seriously endanger my life.

There is something very logical about being wary of anything that might disturb your emotions when you have a history of severe depression. I have had active depression for nearly five years now, and only just started to move into recovery in the last six months or so. I once spent a full semester in the midst of complete suicidal ideation, isolation, lack of pleasure in anything, and utterly overwhelming anxiety. I remember almost no moments of even contentment or neutrality: it was all overwhelming emotional pain. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I have friends who were there and know just how nasty it was. It was bad.

So while it might seem irrational to let anxiety or worry dissuade me from an amazing opportunity like this, I am risking a great deal more than most people would who try something new. I can feel myself falling into depression, and I know just how bad it can get and how long it can last. Beyond the emotional toll, there are also very physical results to my depression: while I have more skills now than I did in the past, I don’t trust myself to weather a full depressive episode without hurting myself or restricting my food and putting my body in serious danger.

When I see the potential for my mental health to fall apart, I see the risk of repeating the worst depression I’ve experienced. It is quite literally what would be termed unconscionable torture were it to be enacted on another human being. There is a great deal of logic in being deeply afraid of this possibility and in wanting to hold on to the things that have kept it at bay.

To get very dark for a minute (and let’s be honest, a lot of the things in my past have been fairly dark so I guess this is just being straightforward), when you have sat with a razor blade poised against your wrist for hours at a time, replaying the scenario of what it would be like and how hard you’d have to press over and over, and only dropping the blade when you think of the one friend who would inevitably find your body, the stakes of having some level of comfort and safety, having people you know and love around you, become much higher. This is not even an extreme possibility: this is a regular part of my history.

For some people with mental illness who have reached a stage of recovery, individual coping skills and tactics are a lifesaver. For those people, being on their own in a new place might not be as big of a deal because they know what is helpful for them and how to manage their emotions effectively. For me, the best buffer I have against the nasties is having a good support crew: friends who keep me grounded, people who challenge my ridiculous pessimism, people who know me well enough to call me out when I’m being cruel to myself, and people who I am comfortable enough to simply be around without feeling pressure or anxiety, people I can feel safe with. I do have other skills that are helpful, but so far this is the single most helpful thing that I have found: it gives me a reason to bother with caring for myself.

Removing myself from this support system gives my depression and anxiety an opening. The fear and worry and desperate desire to go home that I feel right now is not simply loneliness or the discomfort of a new place. It is at least partly the recognition that I could be in serious danger and the strong desire to go back to where I am safer. There is nothing illogical about that. That is not just an emotion, and it is something that should be taken into account when I act because it is truly important information. While I have not let this information dictate my behavior (I am still here and accomplishing all the tasks I’ll need to be able to stay), it isn’t something that I’m simply going to try to put aside. It’s something I want to remain acutely aware of, because ignoring it is putting myself in danger. Taking your emotions seriously as a force to be reckoned with is fully logical and truly important when you have a history of mental illness, and it’s a privilege to be able to set emotions aside or take actions without making certain you take them into account.

Stronger Than The Pills: Dependence and Identity

I was talking the other day with a friend about how people can act completely differently around their significant others. Some people are super bothered by that. “They’re not being themselves!” these hypothetical people whine. “They’re changing!” There are a lot of people who argue that you shouldn’t allow other people to change who you are, that you should “be yourself”.

My friend and I went back and forth for a while about what this meant for your “real” self, but by the end of the conversation we had mostly agreed that everything we do and everyone we interact with affects our brain. Brains are malleable things, and there’s evidence that (especially when we’re young) even single interactions can have impacts for years to come. Relatedly, we all adjust our behavior and self based on context. We change our clothes when we go to work, our language changes based on who we’re around. When there are different inputs and contexts, our “self” has to adapt. This is part of being a successful and functional human being.

Brains tend less to be like a static identity and more like a processor: we have ways that our brains like to interpret things or respond to things, but there is always something there to interpret, there’s always stimuli coming in that will make slight adjustments to our processors. So it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal if you choose to be around someone who affects your processor.

What does this have to do with pills you might ask?

Well some of those things that people say about relationships that affect your personality are things that people say about pills. I’ve been listening almost nonstop to Neon Trees for a few weeks and one of their lyrics says “I’m stronger than the pills”. I’m so done with phrases like this. They imply that anything that affects your brain chemistry is a crutch, a cheat, a way out of being you.

The biggest problem with this is that just like a relationship that affects the way you act, there is no integral self to interrupt. “Self” is choosing which inputs you would like. There’s really no way we can figure out what we’re like without the influence of our environment and the food we eat and the sleep we get and the people we talk to and the job we have (see: Judith Butler). We’ve got influences from the moment we’re conceived. This is not to say that there aren’t some elements of personality and self that stay consistent across time, just that it’s silly to imagine that you can have a pristine, untouched self that would be horribly tainted forever by the introduction of meds.

Strength is knowing what allows you to behave positively and functionally and choosing to put yourself under that influence: because you will never be without influence. “Being true to yourself” is about what you choose to surround yourself with. Changing our inputs is part of how we remain independent. Unless you cannot choose to change your inputs, you are always stronger than they are.

Another issue some people have with meds or serious relationships is dependence. They don’t want to have to rely on something external to themselves. I hate to break it to you all but we’re all dependent on things that are external to us. we’re dependent on food and on sleep for god’s sake, and those things affect our brain chemistry and biology. There are things we need each and every day, whether that is a medication or 20 minutes of alone time or running or food or a book or your Facebook. We’re dependent on the world around us. And all of these things affect your brain in ways similar to your relationship or your drugs.

It doesn’t feel nice to realize how dependent you are on external things, how fragile you are. And when you’re dependent on things that others aren’t dependent on (like pills), it’s a reminder over and over that we have to choose our inputs but that we don’t get to choose whether or not there are inputs. That can be scary. It can feel like you have no control over your Self. But you do. You get to choose (to some extent) what things affect your Self. You get to choose whether to sleep enough or work a shitty, stressful job, or eat healthy, or be around validating people, or whatever it might be that turns you into a processing machine or a bumbling Windows ’95.

That’s all the power you get. So yes, your identity will be dependent on your pills. It might change who you are a bit. But that’s ok. Because everything and everyone you encounter does. If you don’t like how you change then you get a choice: you can continue to depend on it or you can move away from it. But if you want to stop being influenced, if you want your identity to be pure and unadulterated you, then you’re pretty much just going to have to die because that’s the only way you stop being influenced.

Making choices to change yourself so you don’t act like a dick is not selling out: it’s being an adult.

 

I’m Afraid of Identifying As Asexual

This weekend was the fantabulous Skeptech, a conference about skepticism and technology. As per usual I had a great time and am currently quite exhausted (despite the fact that like a good little introvert I went home before midnight most nights).  I have lots of Thoughts spinning around in my head from the weekend, but for now I’m going to focus on one interaction in particular. In the Twitter feed I got into a discussion with Kate Donovan and Tetyana about asexuality and eating disorders in response to a panel regarding bias and science. Without really thinking, I mentioned that I was afraid my ED would turn out to be the real reason that I haven’t felt sexual in quite some time, and it grew into a conversation about why that would be a bad thing.

The topic was a bit too large for Twitter, so I’ve been pondering it a bit further and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of fearing that I’m relying too heavily on my own privilege, and an internalization of many of the myths about sexual identity and the process of finding one’s sexual identity. I am tentatively taking on the label of “asexual” but I’m terrified that at some point in the future I will feel a wave of sexual attraction and it will turn out that I’ve been lying to everyone and that the real reasons I feel this way are medication, my eating disorder, and depression. Here’s why that seems so scary.

One of the things I worry about is taking the name and label of an oppressed group if I have not truly experienced the oppression that they live. It’s somewhat akin to a white person claiming that they’re racially oppressed. It’s an offensive concept at best, and at worst it muddies and obscures the real struggles that people of color experience, delegitimizing their words and stories and thus making it harder for them to make changes to improve their situation. While asexuality isn’t quite on the same spectrum, I am afraid that I will be claiming their oppression when I’ve existed in privilege. If I say that I’ve had those experiences, that I am oppressed in the same ways they are, but it turns out that I’m really allosexual, straight, cis, monogamous…how hard will it be for others to take the worries of the ace community seriously? I’m also afraid of calling on the resources that have been put together for asexual people because I’m worried I’ll be taking something from those who actually need it.

I believe that these are important fears to have, especially for someone who is as privileged as I am. It’s important to think about whether your future actions and identifications could have harmful repercussions for an oppressed group. I don’t want the ace community to be taken less seriously because I casually started identifying as ace and then nonchalantly went back to allosexual. Aces are already criticized for identifying as queer because they aren’t oppressed enough, because they are supposedly all white, cis, het girls who have privilege shooting out of their asses. I don’t want to contribute to this stereotype. These are important things to consider when thinking about whether to take on a certain identity or not. I don’t want to be the ace whose asexuality is actually a disease, the person that others can point to whenever someone else says “I am ace” as a way to remind them “but what if you’re really not”.

But there is a whole other level of worry that comes on a personal level which is fully wrapped up in the expectations that society has for a woman to be available constantly, for women to make perfect choices, and for sexuality to be a linear progression. If my “asexuality” were actually just a result of my eating disorder, I would actually just be a broken straight person, someone who wants to be able to have sex but isn’t interested because of trauma/disease/stupidity. It’s scary enough if I am asexual to look at the past 10 years of my dating life and think that I’ve spent all that time chasing after the wrong things. It’s even worse if I was just horribly broken and made choices that hurt myself because I am so disordered that I can’t find healthy relationships and wouldn’t even pursue something that would end up being good for me. It’s too cliche to be a girl with an eating disorder who can’t have sex because she’s too self-conscious.

There is a large part of me that is feeling imposter syndrome around this. It’s not necessarily that I think being ace is preferable to being allosexual, but rather that actually finding out who I am feels too good to be true. This can’t be right, I’m too screwed up, I’m too lost, I’m too confused to actually have found some small piece of identity that is truly me. I have spent so much of my life with no identity but my eating disorder that accepting something else as an integral part of me feels wrong in many ways. I suspect that others who are in the process of recovery feel this way when they start to find good things.

Partially it’s that I’m convinced I’ll never know who I am, partially it’s that if something is going to replace the eating disorder in any way it needs to be quite strong, and partially it’s a fear: what if I try to find something that’s really me and it turns out it’s just the eating disorder in disguise? What if every part of me is just my eating disorder in disguise? What if I can’t even trust something as basic as my sexual impulses? This is deeply tied to the mental illness. I’ve been told so many times that I can’t trust things like my hunger cues, or my desires, or the voices in my head. This one must be wrong too, especially if it’s something so out of the ordinary as asexuality. I think it can be really damaging to teach people as part of their recovery that they have to stop listening to things that feel perfectly real and important.

I’m also a rule follower, a big part of having an eating disorder. A perfectionist. Everything must be just so. I can’t make decisions until I explore every possible angle and even then I often can’t because there is no right or perfect answer. The idea that I might identify as something and then find out that it’s wrong is terrifying. I’ll have embarrassed myself, I’ll have gotten the WRONG ANSWER about something incredibly important. I won’t be doing things right, I’ll have screwed up. That would be the worst thing ever, even worse than that time in first grade I got time out that I still remember.

There’s also an element of internalized misunderstanding of how sexuality works. One of the things we’re taught is that you figure out what you are and then you be that thing. Usually you figure it out in high school or college: you “experiment” and then realize you’re gay/straight/bi/whatever. Then that’s your life. It’s fairly simple. You might make one mistake and date the wrong gender or try a poly relationship and realize it’s not for you, but then everything is figured out. This isn’t actually how sexuality works, in reality there’s some fluidity, there’s often a lot more confusion, you may think you’re one thing and then discover a new term or community that you think fits you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying on different sexual identities to see which one feels the most like you.

But I’ve internalized that you figure it out and then that’s it, anything else is wrong or improper or a LIE. You might be repressing part of yourself if you ever end up changing. You’re probably misleading your loved ones. You’ve probably destroyed at least one relationship asking for something, setting boundaries when you really didn’t need to, trying to be something that you’re not: there was no reason to ask for space to try something new if you aren’t going to identify that way FOREVER, and doing so was really quite selfish. At the very least you’re just a really screwed up person who’s flip floppy and shallow and attention seeking because there isn’t any other reason to change. Obviously none of this is true. We all get to ask for whatever we need when we need it, but the implications for my relationships if it turns out I’m allosexual are confusing and frightening.

I think one of the things that makes recovery from an eating disorder so difficult is trying to suss out which parts of your life are you and which belonged to the eating disorder. For some reason coming to the wrong conclusions (even if you can change your mind later) feels like the end of the world. It seems as if more of your life has been stolen from you, as if you’re doing recovery wrong, as if you’re just too stupid to realize that your whole life was the eating disorder.

This is one of the reasons that I wish labels were both more common and less important. Reality is that people probably have some core identity but that they have some fluidity. For some reason taking on a label has reached a level of importance that people view it as All That Defines You. Particularly if you come out or have a few relationships in the mold of that label, you’re never ever allowed to change. If identity labels were more like career labels or relationships, something that’s important but that you can grow out of, it might be less scary to try some things on as you, then realize that you’ve grown into something else. That fluidity is hugely important in reducing the shame that people feel when they realize they might not be what they thought they were. I think we all deserve the space to learn.

 

Changing Habits: The Reaction

In the process of treatment and trying to recover from the grab bag of mental health issues I have, I’ve made a serious effort to change many of my habits. Everyone knows that changing habits is hard: adding a meal where there was none requires a fair amount of effort and planning, adding in more socialization requires thought and energy, changing emotional habits is one of the hardest of all. Everyone knows that in order to change a habit you need to do something consciously for many months before it will begin to become ingrained (generally experts say 1-3 months).

And yet despite the amount of personal effort that I’ve put in to changing my habits, the thing that has actually been the most difficult has been the reaction of those people who are closest to me. People act confused, they tease, they joke, and often they make a big deal out of small changes. I’m going to take one example that’s a little bit trite, but sticks out to me as an example of how difficult it is for others to see you in a different light and how that can affect your ability to make changes long term.

I have a sweet tooth. I love chocolate, I love cake, I love ice cream. For most of my life I have never passed these things up. In the process of dealing with my eating disorder, I’ve made an attempt to make my eating more even and balanced: to pay attention to my hunger cues instead of simply eating if something tastes very good or if I force myself to, to stop when I’m full, to eat when I’m hungry. This means that I’ve also been trying to be more careful about not simply asking for ALL THE CHOCOLATE whenever it is offered to me. When I do that, I often feel guilty, unwell, or just angry at myself, and I often feel as if I’m binging if I eat sugar simply to eat sugar.

The other night I said no to a piece of cake at a family gathering. I got stares, exclamations of “Are you ok?”, people feeling my forward as if to imply that I were sick. Needless to say, this was not helpful in affirming my decision to listen to my body that it was full and didn’t want cake. Of course in this situation I didn’t feel I could explain my choice so I muttered something about not liking carrot cake and tried to make myself small.

Obviously it makes sense to comment on something that has changed, or to continue treating someone based on their past behavior if you don’t have an indication that they have changed. However over the top reactions really can make someone feel singled out and belittled for their changes, as if they’re weird or wrong for trying to make those changes.

In general, people don’t want to hear your negative comments about their changes.  Not only do they have to be mindful of making the change, but they have to continue to justify it to themselves every time it’s pointed out, and even if they don’t it certainly feels as if they do. Ideally, changing a habit is about simply doing something different without even noticing that it’s different: it’s habit when you do it without thinking. Drawing attention to it makes it so much harder to have it become second nature.

People expect you to be the same always. When you change habits, you are changing your identity to some degree, and people don’t always take kindly to that. Other people also have to learn to see different things about you, and it’s easy to fall into the mold that others expect of you. You see this when you hang out with someone you haven’t seen in a long time and act in ways you haven’t for years. So if others continue to expect something of you, it requires extra resolve to do something different, to be clear that what you want now is not what you wanted in the past, and to communicate to those around you in a polite fashion that you are different now. Each time someone remembers the old version of you, you’re left grappling with that self as well.

An added difficulty is that oftentimes family and friends may not realize how difficult or serious a choice that you’re making is. They may joke or tease, when you feel you’re doing something important and hard. When that happens, it can feel like you’re stupid, oversensitive, or just wrong about the importance or difficulty of your choices. It feels like you’re going crazy, as if your reaction to things were totally irrational and you should be ok with joking or light-heartedness. Imagine if you made a choice to improve a serious physical health issue and people teased you about it: it certainly would not feel easier.

So this is a general plea: if you know someone in your life is in the process of making some big life changes, let the little changes slide too. It may be better to ask someone about a change when it’s not in the exact moment so that they don’t have to go through the momentary personal crisis that is reminding themselves why they’re not eating that piece of cake. A quiet comment or question when someone makes a decision out of the ordinary is one thing, but it is unnecessary to make a big deal, and can make the person feel as if they’ve been put on the spot or as if they have to defend their actions to you. And for those who are making changes, letting others know ahead of time can take the pressure off of you in the moment, even if you just tell one or two trusted people. It makes it easier for them to run defense and change the subject.

An Apology is a Phoenix

In the skeptical community, people have been talking about apologies. We’ve been working on being open about when we’re wrong, valuing the apology, and discussing what constitutes a good or a bad apology. What is more fascinating to me than these practical discussions is the question of how apologies actually work. What is it about saying two words that can change the nature of a harmful act? What are we doing when we apologize?

 

The place to start might be when you should apologize. In general, an apology is expected when you harmed someone and you could have acted differently, particularly if you harmed them intentionally. An apology usually implies that you will change your behavior in the future and that you can see you should have acted differently. Oftentimes we might say “I’m sorry” just to express sadness or sympathy. That is not the same as an apology. This is the type of thing you might do with an accident, although if the accident is bad enough you may apologize with the intent of improving your behavior in the future, especially if you were reckless or careless.

 

In college, I had a professor who likened apologies to the lifecycle of a phoenix: you kill off a small part of yourself and are reborn better and stronger. I think that this conception of an apology is important: an apology is more than simply saying words. It is a speech act: you are doing something with words. You can threaten someone with words, you can question someone with words, and similarly you can apologize. So what are you doing when you apologize?

 

The image of a phoenix is particularly pertinent to an apology, because a good apology is one in which you identify a piece of yourself that you want to kill off or change into something new. An apology that truly understands what you have done wrong and seeks to right the wrong will want to distance the new self from the self who did the harm. Each of us spends our whole lives choosing which parts of ourselves to cultivate and which parts to cull off. When we apologize, we clearly identify a type of behavior or attitude that we want to kill off. When we do that, we open the way for a new behavior that is more positive and more in line with our values.

 

What I find the most interesting about this is that it helps to explain why apologies are so painful and often difficult. We have to clearly identify something about ourselves that we don’t like and that we want to change, openly get rid of it, and then somehow try to come out with new life and growth from the experience. It hurts to change, it hurts to realize that you dislike a part of yourself, and it’s painful to try to remove something. The very image of the phoenix is one of violence towards the self, but it also explains why apologies can be a great thing; only by burning away the mess can you turn into something better.

 

And when we use this image to understand what someone is doing in an apology, we begin to understand why it holds the power that it does. When we’re talking about our identities and how we form our identities, the most we have are metaphors, symbols, and words. No one can see our identities or our personalities, and so the things we do with words are often the most important. When we apologize, we are doing something to ourselves even more than we are doing something for another person: in front of witnesses, we are killing off one piece of ourselves and committing to the growth of another piece. We are allowing others to see a process of change in ourselves, which is something personal and difficult. The intimacy of an apology is something that is rarely discussed, but I believe it plays an important role. We could go through the same process of recognizing that we are wrong and committing to change our behavior without telling anyone, however the fact that we do it in front of others and as reparation for the harms that we’ve done makes it a kind of justice.

 

In the atheist community we don’t like to talk much about the power of metaphors and symbolic acts but let’s be real for a minute: symbols mean something. People wouldn’t hold on to them so hard if they didn’t mean things to us and if symbolic acts didn’t mean things. And so the symbolic act of an apology does more than simply let someone know you’re sorry and sad for what’s happened. It illustrates to them that you’re willing to distance yourself from someone you used to be, perhaps even to the point of destroying that part of yourself. Apologies are powerful symbols.