I’m Sadder About My Cat Dying than I Am About Humans I’ve Lost (and why that makes sense)

(This was originally published by me on Medium.)


My cat Penelope died. She was almost 21 years old, and she lived a good life. She had slowed down in the last few years a bit, but was still surprisingly spry and healthy. If not for the fact that cats simply do not live past 20 almost ever, there was no reason to think that her time was up.

Then one night a few weeks ago, we found her lying on the floor looking strange, and it seemed like she couldn’t use her legs to stand up. Two emergency vet visits and a bunch of tests were inconclusive, and told us only that she’d most likely either had a stroke, or a brain tumor that had finally grown to a size where it was impinging on the motor areas in her brain, but we’ll never know for sure.

While trying to decide on the right thing to do, we fed her wet food off of our fingers; gave her water from a medicine dropper; futilely tried to help her stand; held, stroked and comforted her a whole bunch. Eventually we made the excruciating decision to end her life with euthanasia. After the vet left our home, we wrapped Penelope’s body in a blanket to lay in wake overnight, and in the morning we buried her in the yard and planted a beautiful shrub over her resting spot.


The grief experienced when a pet passes on is difficult to explain, especially to people who have not had a close relationship with a non-human animal. It seems impossible that I should feel sadder about Penelope passing than I have for humans who had a profound role in my life, but I think I do feel sadder, in a certain way. Here are some reasons I can think of that might explain the different, special, ultra-intense kind of grief we feel when our close animal companion dies.

1. The connection we have with our pets is very primal — very mammalian. Since we don’t have language as a way to communicate with these beings, we instead connect in very basic ways that put us in touch with those parts of our selves that are even more fundamental than our human-ness. We connect as two creatures that occupy space together; touch, groom, smell, each other; observe and internalize each other’s habits and patterns. While we don’t hear each others thoughts through words, we do hear each other’s inner experience through the raw sounds we each make and direct towards each other.

Not only do our pets learn something about interacting in the human world, but we humans learn something about how to be in the world of cats or dogs, or some other species. Usually we humans spend most of our days out among other humans, where we don’t experience the parts of our souls that our animal friends draw out. When we lose a pet, we lose a friend who connects with us in a way nobody else does.

2. Unlike humans, animals exist almost entirely inside their own skin and fur. As humans, we extend our selves beyond biology by inhabiting the world of signifiers, signs and culture making… We write, we start companies, we record songs, we make up jokes, we knit scarves, we invent recipes, we collect physical possessions. All of these things persist after we physically die. Humans also (usually) leave behind a web of social, community and family connections. And all of these people have memories of our beloved deceased human, and we can take some comfort in knowing that the person we lost lives on not only in our own memory, but in the memories of many other people.

A pet has a lot less to leave behind when his or her body goes away. Penelope was a very cautious cat, socially. When guests came around, she usually hid. So only a few people besides her (human) mom and me knew her. But for Linda and me, Penelope was an everyday, every minute fact of our lives. For over 20 years, we planned our lives around her care. She was the most consistent feature, in fact, outlasting every other element of the household.

What we still have of her is knowing what her fur felt like when she rubbed up against us, the feeling of exactly how much gravity resisted when we picked her up (not very much), and habitual expectations of finding her sleeping steadfastly in one of her favorite spots when we walk in a room. Mostly she’s just gone. And It’s really sad.

3. There are no widely established rituals for grieving the death of a pet. There are no funerals, no obituaries, not too many community cemeteries for pets. We can invent our own little ceremonies and designate burial areas in our own yards, as we did for Penelope, but these are very private opportunities for marking the end of a life — not woven into the culture at large. At most, we share a picture of our dear one on social media, and get a bunch of online sympathy, but still there is no major public ritual to frame the sad transition we are experiencing, making the loss of their special presence all the more isolating and lonely.

4. The world does not accommodate people who have lost a pet, the way it does when a human loved one dies. Time off from work? Cancelling a promise you made to help your friend move? Bereavement arrangements from the airline? Not gonna happen. Even writing this out, I feel a twinge of “people are going to think I’m crazy.” Because it might seem crazy to have expectations for these kinds of support from the world at large, we don’t ask for them, and, either way, it leaves those of us who had strong attachments to a deceased pet without all the space needed to heal from our loss.

5. We don’t get to say goodbye. While — as described in #1 — not having a shared language to communicate with leads us to having a special kind of mammalian closeness with our pets, on the other hand, the lack of language means we don’t get to say goodbye to them in the way we often do with humans. Now, granted, humans often die without a linguistic roundup of things — unexpectedly in an accident, or at the end of a long decline, in which they are not responsive for many months before they finally go. But with pets, it’s always the case that we don’t get to finish our story together. I did not get to ask Penelope what the end of her life meant to her, or get to tell her what her life meant to me, or how excruciating it was to make that decision for her. She’s just gone.


Penelope had a bunch of nicknames. Peeps, Peebles, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Princess Paws, and many more that are too embarrassing to print. (Yes, they are even more embarrassing than the ones I listed). Her weight hovered around 5 pounds most of her life. To the few people and other animals she was comfortable with, she was incredibly affectionate and tuned in. She adored and revered her older “sister” Zoey, who passed a few years before her. Same with the one dog she ever really got close to, her toweringly large “brother” Arlo. For most of her life she was quick and nimble and playful. She had the ability to make the most normally-mundane actions, like drinking water or cleaning her face with a paw, seem like miracles of preciousness. There has never been and will never be another Penelope.

Writing this helps me understand why it feels so weird to say that I’m sadder over my cat’s death, in some ways, than I am for people close to me who have died. Of course I miss horribly my dad; and I lament my several same-age-as-me friends who died way too early. It’s not really a comparison of one versus the other. It’s just… different. And impossible. And is.

Irony, David Bowie, my dead friend, and me

irony_b_eTwo people who have been influential in my life died this January. First David Bowie, someone, of course, I never met, and then my friend Evan who played in bands with me when we were both younger. David Bowie surprised his fans with his departure, having been battling cancer for more than a year, but keeping it secret. Evan’s death was a surprise to all: he succumbed to a severe case of pneumonia that became fatal so rapidly that Evan himself probably never knew that his life was ending.

My last conversation with Evan, over Facebook chat and shortly before he became ill, was about David Bowie, with us both reflecting on the impact he’d had on us. Evan shared with me that he did not come to fully appreciate Bowie’s work until later in his life. Evan’s words were “I had to get wiser to get hip to his irony.” Irony was something that divided Evan and me, to some extent, when we were both younger and trying to combine our aesthetic sensibilities into a coherent package for the band we played in together. At the time, Evan was very much about creating optimistic, affirming expressions that would support the most positive possible lives for himself and those in his sphere. I admired the stalwartness with which he dedicated himself to this purpose and saw the great value in it. And yet, I also found myself wanting to write and play songs that did not shy from sarcastic, sardonic and ironic voices. At the time, as insistent as I was about doing it my way, still, on some secret level, I thought Evan’s approach was “right” whereas I was just indulging a kind of lowly urge to scratch an itch. That irony/sarcasm/darkness made art funnier, or sexier or more sellable to “the lowest common denominator” and things like that, but was less courageous than art that purposefully sought to elevate. In other words, in my aesthetic gut, I wanted irony, but in my mind I did not know how to justify it. Back then.

As the years went by, and we each grew into our separately unfolding lives, I have found myself becoming more and more  adamant about being allowed to express earnestness and irony, both, without having to feel embarrassed or ashamed about either. Most of the music and other kinds of art that I like now are that way, and these days I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about a theorized new aesthetic cultural turn that some call Metamodernism, that is kind of all about about embracing both sides of the earnestness/irony divide.

After the time when we were working together, whenever Evan and I crossed paths, over the years, there was always a sense of mutual delight. We both tended to keep track of each others’ musical projects, and in our usually hurried encounters (that’s how adulthood gets), we’d do our best to catch up on our lives. Houses, wives and children (or lack thereof in my case), day-career changes, etc.

I was often blown away by the intricate craftsmanship with which Evan composed words, melodies and arrangements. He poured all of his heart and a very natural vocal gift into his performances, and his musical compatriots, including his beloved wife Lael, were top notch. I felt equally appreciated by Evan for my own music. I can’t know what he really thought now, but my impression was that he saw me as a kind of treasured musical eccentric, what with the indie/quirky/ironic and sometimes shadow-sidey direction that my music went in since we parted ways as bandmates.

OK, so here’s what I am thinking about irony. And by “irony” I mean the whole mess of terms and concepts that often get thrown together around it. Sarcasm, snark, sardonicism, facetiousness, etc.  My ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Shea, taught me that irony is when there is something important that at least one character in a story does not know, but, the reader does know (and possibly other characters know, as well). It adds dimension to a story, because, rather than giving one unified accounting of events, it creates a more complex narrative that includes multiple points of view – different versions of the truth.

When Evan messaged me that it wasn’t till later in his life that he got wise enough to appreciate David Bowie’s irony, I wondered two things. First, well… I wondered why he thought of David Bowie as ironic. In the transcript of our chat exchange, we end up drifting into other topics, and never get back to that point. I have to think that for Evan, who was very straightforward with his intentions and missions, there was something oblique and coy about David Bowie’s various self-presentations and character-based songwriting. So, then, the more important question: What was the wisdom that Evan eventually found in David Bowie’s irony, and presumably in irony in general?

Since I did not get to finish this conversation with Evan, I’ve played it out in my mind. I’ll spare you the cuteness of an imaginary dialog, but the answer is along these lines:

When we proclaim and express, especially through art, a great truth, we by necessity must curate reality. Curating is the informed, intentional selection of what to include in a presentation. Without curation, it’s not art and it’s not truth; it’s simply what is.
When we take what is and make it into art by making thoughtful choices about which parts of it to include and draw attention to, we by necessity end up leaving things out. Those reality shavings that get left out of our work are sometimes – not always, but sometimes – important in ways that even the best artists cannot comprehend. After a while, the left-out stuff builds up and needs to be heard/seen/felt. When we include an ironic dimension in our work, it is a way of embracing that which we don’t even realize we are at risk of not embracing. It creates an opening through which everything we don’t know is important can pour back into our work, while we busily focus on emphasizing and featuring the things that we know are important. David Bowie’s songs always, or at least usually, had a clear point to them, whether it was emotional or conceptual, but he also wrapped them in a blanket of weirdness that was not necessarily specific to the meaning of the particular song, but just kind of came with the territory of being a David Bowie song. I feel like, as I explained above, this opened up a space for a bunch of unpredictable, otherwise hidden truths to attach themselves to his expressions. This made Bowie’s music more appealing to the kind of listeners who get antsy when presented with a simple unitary truth.

I may be going out on a limb, but I will venture to say that David Bowie, while being a primary mover in the transition from 60s music to 70s music, was also a spiritual godfather to the “alternative rock” that both Evan and I had a hard time fitting in with during the 90s. My feeling is, although a lot of great music did come out of this era, much of it had the failing of being only about irony. If irony is supposed to do the job of making room for the unseen, messy and contradictory sub-truths circling a main truth, you end up with something kind of empty when you make irony the focus of your work, with no truth at the center. Evan did not like this trend, and speculating, he might have associated David Bowie with it, back then. To me, the important difference between David Bowie’s music and the irony-heavy part of alternative rock that’s not my cup of tea is that David Bowie employed irony for a greater purpose, where the lesser artists were ironic for the sake of being ironic. (And, again, I’m using “ironic” in a very general way to include sardonic, sarcastic, dark, meta, parodic, slippery, wry, decentered, etc.).

I wish I could have a little irony summit with Evan, and find out what he came to think about irony in his recent years, how it influenced his own creativity and his work as a mental health counselor, and if he might think my ideas about it might have merit. I wish he could read this piece. I wish David Bowie could make more music. I wish my last conversation with Evan did not end like this:

Evan: I can understand if Let’s Dance was a let down for you. Much more








Let’s Stop Being Stereotypes (and Start Talking to Each Other)

Listening to my local public radio station in Seattle, I heard a debate between two women about a homeless encampment. One was supportive of the homeless people and concerned about how they are being treated. The other was concerned about the possibly negative impact they were having on the surrounding community and felt they were getting a free ride, etc.

What I was struck by was how easy it would be to tell which woman was on which side of the debate just by their tone of voice, rhetorical style and the persona they were presenting.  Independent of the content of her actual words, the anti-encampment woman sounded like an uptight, angry, defensive, narrow-minded conservative bully. Meanwhile, even though I happen to agree with her position, the encampment-sympathetic woman sounded like a smug, patronizing, disconnected, elitist, know-it-all, naive liberal.

Why would these people choose to come across this way when making their case about something they are passionate about, on public radio to an audience of tens of thousands? I think it’s this: They were each, probably without having thought about it much, seeking to sound authoritative and compelling to PEOPLE LIKE THEM. I spend more time with liberals than I do with conservatives, so I’m more familiar with the stereotypical liberal style (at least the west coast version!): slow, measured delivery. An artificial smoothness in the voice. Lots of very abstract terminology that shows you are aware of the systemic, theoretical dimensions of the issue at hand. Within the confines of a private meeting of liberal activists, it makes you sound like you have done your homework, know what you’re talking about and deserve to “hold the talking stick.” But in any other context, it makes you sound like a pretentious, self-important jerk. And here I’m talking about MY SIDE, in the liberal-conservative divide. Of course, when conservatives get on their high horses, they definitely also sound like angry, small-minded jerks to me! I’m not promising anything, but if they could just talk like normal people, I might sometimes be able to learn something, and might even be convinced every once in a while.

Now, I do realize that it gets slippery, and probably racist/classist/regionalist/etc, to claim there is one “normal” way of speaking. We all have our own normal. But sometimes in the heat of a passionate debate, people turn into caricatures of themselves, and it does not help their cause.

When you are having an important conversation with people who disagree with you, if you are hoping that they might learn something from you, or maybe even come to see things your way, and, in any case, you hope that they will trust that you are listening to them, please at the very least don’t try to conform MORE to the speaking style of the sort of folks who already share your beliefs. Sure, be yourself, whatever that is, but don’t dress yourself in the uniform of  a stereotype on purpose, just to impress your teammates. When you do that, you lose your chance to engage with the other side, and you kind of ruin the whole game.

That’s all! Have a nice day!


Don’t Do It!!

My friend John H. just discovered that I have this blog. He told me he was looking forward to digging in and reading what I’ve written. I told him I was flattered but embarrassed because I’ve been so sporadic with my posting. He said “And now you’re going to commit the cardinal sin of blogging; you’re going to write a post apologizing for your absence, with an unrealistic promise to write more frequently. DON’T DO IT!”

Well, here I am, but seriously, I’m back and I am going to start writing a lot more frequently!  I am! It’s true!

On the Phenomenon of Unknowing

I live part of my time in a small town. More specifically, it’s a town, on an island, known to be rather quirky and unconventional, and very close to a major city (Seattle), but in many ways it functions like any other small town. One of the nice things about small towns, including mine, is that there is a limited cast of characters and you are likely to see them again and again as you go about your day in the various shops and public spaces of the town. While this is generally a cozy thing, it has a drawback which is that sometimes it results in burdensome obligatory conversations that neither party enjoys.

In a mutual effort to spare each other from such awkwardness, certain pairs of people begin to reduce the intensity of their interactions. The first stage is that the two people no longer take time to catch up or swap meaningful observations when they run into each other. Instead they just say “Hi” although maybe with a nice amount of warm enthusiasm, and definitely using each other’s names. Next, names are no longer included in the greetings, possibly because at least one of you has become insecure – you know WHO it is, he’s the guy who played bass at that music jam you were at a few months ago, but you’re afraid that even though it feels like his name is “Robert,” maybe it is really “Richard.” Soon “Hi” gives way to the ritual wordless Hey-Man nod (between men) or the polite smile (between men and women, or  between two women).

The end point of this UNKNOWING process comes when two people encounter each other in public, and no obvious indication is given that they have ever met before, although there may be a ghost trace of the previously more intensive connection evident in the generous efforts each makes to allow the other to proceed unimpeded and without eye contact.

Although the reasons why unknowing occurs are completely understandable, it is also disturbing and somewhat depressing to realize that it happens often enough that I have come up with a word for it.


I Crave Fame, I Do

When I was about eight or nine years old, I won a ten-speed bike in a raffle sponsored by our town’s police department. I recall standing near the back of a small crowd of kids and parents, hearing my name called out, and not feeling surprised at all that I was the winner. It seemed natural that I would be the protagonist in any event I got involved in. Like, in the same way that if you were having a birthday party, you’d be the kid that got to blow out the candles on the cake. I didn’t puzzle very much over the conundrum that my winning meant a hundred or so other kids didn’t win. I just assumed I was meant to be the star of the show.

As an adult, I have become much more realistic about my lack of centrality in the events of the world, and I am not very prone to enter lotteries or contests of any sort except for one:  the contest of seeking attention for my creative works – music, and more recently writing. It’s been decades now, and when it comes to this particular raffle, I still haven’t gotten used to the idea that I’m not going to win it eventually, or that I don’t deserve to. Of course, I know that this stubbornness is not logical. There are millions of other creatives competing for the same prize, and certainly plenty of them are more talented and dedicated than I am.

So what is it that keeps a self-aware, circumspect fellow like me waiting expectantly, in spite of the odds, to have my number called out and see something I created lit up on the marquee of public reception? Am I, along with every other attention-craving artist, simply delusional and narcissistic? Or is there something justifiable about our demands that the world give us some shrift?

Well, for one, when I create a song, or write an essay, or a short story, I have created a small world that I then live in very vividly for at least a short while.  I want other people to join me in that world! I want companionship in that world; I want to not feel insane for being the only one who knows how to get there; I want other people’s perspectives to help me understand it. In other words, I want the same kind of community I would have in experiencing and reacting to the work of well-known artists, but in this case, for work that just happens to have my name on it. I want my work to have an audience, so that I don’t have to be alone in engaging it.

Another way I look at this is to draw a parallel between the learning of a creative form and the learning of a language. When children learn language, they start out as intensive listeners. The adults do all the talking and the children pay a lot of attention and figure out how it all works. At some point, as young language learners, we all realize that we too, can take our own feelings, desires, intentions, observations and questions and put them into words that have an affect on the world and the people in our lives. We learn that not only do people talk to us, but we can talk back to them. And this is a big part of what being human is all about.

To complete the analogy, as a musician, I started out as a listener and a fan, receiving the feelings, desires, intentions, observations and questions of the “stars.” After I got the hang of how this kind of communication works by listening to music, at some point I ventured into the making of music. So, for me at least, in the same way that when I started learning to talk I would want to use my new skill to share my thoughts with the people I learned from, I find myself with a desire for my music to be heard from the people that I learned from – my musical parents, so to speak. Now, of course, I realize that having this expectation is basically insane, because unlike my real parents, who actually raised me and cared about me more than anything else, the established artists who inspired me to make music and to write have no reason to care about me in particular. But my unconscious mind does not know the difference between realistic and unrealistic. So here I am wanting them to complete the circle with me. And the only way that will happen is if I become well known for my work.

Paradoxically, having the ability to express myself through music and writing, as wonderful of a gift as it is, leaves me much of the time yearning for a connectedness that always seems out of reach.

Now, it has been explained to me by some musician and author friends who are one, two or several steps further along than me that this kind of frustrated yearning persists, and maybe even gets worse, no matter how high you climb the fame stairway. They tell me how there’s always somebody or some range of listeners whose opinion is crucial to you who just doesn’t know or care about your work, and the kinds of recognition that were once a thrill become not good enough. I think there must be some level where it is no longer an issue (Paul McCartney?), but I get the basic idea. “You gotta make the music for you, man.”  I know, I know. And “The grass is always greener,” and “It’s a jungle out there,” and “You can’t always get what you want but if you try some time you get what you need.”

When I was discussing these thoughts with an old friend, she seemed to have misunderstood my point and thought that I was asserting some kind of childish demand of “The Universe” that it should fulfill my unsatisfied wishes; that this blog post is some kind of a complaint.  Not at all. It’s just that I’ve always felt kind of petty and immature for continuing to have dreams of “fame” and now I’ve had these insights that help me understand why it is natural that I would have such dreams. I no longer feel like an idiot about it, in fact, I’m PROUD of my deluded yearnings, and if you have something similar, you should be proud too!


UPDATE:  None of what I wrote above changes the fact that I wholeheartedly believe this…

My Thoughts About Sociopaths, Part One

A couple years ago, a friend of mine on Facebook (question for people reading this in 2016:  Is Facebook still ubiquitous, or is it Friendster yet?) asked “Does anybody know anything about Sociopaths?” I went and googled “Sociopaths” and that landed me on a fascinating blog: Sociopathworld.com. I discovered a candid, articulate exposition hosted by a self-acknowledged sociopath who goes, online, by the initials “M.E.”

M.E.’s frank discussion (with LOTS of interesting, relevant comments by readers) of topics such as “Do Sociopaths Love?”  “Do Sociopaths Know They Are Sociopaths?”   “Sociopathic Children”  triggered in me a lightning storm of thoughts about not only sociopathy, but more wide-ranging questions about general human nature.

Right around the same time, it seemed like you couldn’t put NPR on your radio without hearing an interview of some author with the latest book on the subject. These people have a lot of useful information for most readers, but, honestly, for the real uncensored insights made possible in an anonymous blog written by someone close to the topic, M.E. is da man. (Actually, upon returning to the blog, I just discovered that M.E. is a woman! Of course, it’s interesting that I assumed otherwise.)

So, here is my perspective, a musing about human nature inspired by contemplating sociopathy, with tons and tons of deference to 1) The psychology and mental health professions, and 2) M.E..

Definitions and Terms:
(Disclaimer – these are MY definitions and terms, for the purposes of this discussion. I may not be using the terms exactly the way others do, which is why I am taking the time to explain them here.)

Empathy:  An involuntary response to another person’s experience, such that we feel some echo of the suffering or happiness that we perceive them feeling.  In this essay, I use empathy, sympathy, and compassion interchangeably, switching around just so I don’t get tired of one term.

A sociopath is someone who does not have the same level of built-in, hard-wired empathy for other humans and animals that most people have.   Sociopaths simply do whatever is in their perceived narrow self interest, that they calculate they can get away with.

Sociopath vs. Psychopath:  A lot of people use these terms interchangeably.  Meanwhile, mental health professionals have left both terms behind and refer to “Antisocial Personality Disorder.” For my discussion, I continue to use the old, popular terms, and I maintain the distinction that I believe formerly came along with them.  A psychopath is a sociopath who also suffers from a mental disconnection from reality on some level.  The people who commit horrible murders and who abduct and torture people are probably psychopaths.  A sociopath, while perhaps feeling the same lack of  sympathy for the victims as a psychopath, would be more tuned in to societal norms, and possible personal repercussions for such extreme behavior. Also, psychopaths are more likely to be driven by “crazy” things, such as voices in their heads, or outlandish and uncontrollable urges.  A sociopath, on the other hand, is more likely to be motivated towards their acts of cruelty out of a need to alleviate boredom, pragmatic selfishness, or intellectual curiosity about the psychology of the victims. I am mostly interested in talking about “mere” sociopaths. Psychopaths are so extreme that they tell us less about broad humanity than sociopaths do.  And I’m actually happy to use the scientifically outdated term, with the hope that it partially gets me off the hook for my amateur arm-chair theorizing.

Empathy, Sociopathy, Game Theory and Evolution:

When asking the question “Why would sociopaths exist, from an evolutionary standpoint?” I quickly find myself changing the question around: Why have most people NOT evolved to be sociopaths? Simplistically, one might expect natural selection to favor those individuals who are most psychologically disposed to take advantage of every opportunity to better their own situation, unencumbered by an irrational involuntary prioritization of the needs of others.

This would be true if it were not for the facts that 1) Humans (like many other animals) succeed by cooperating with other individuals. 2) Because of the way brains work, the most essential, life-preserving mental processes need to take place on an automatic (unconscious) level, not on a level of higher (but slower) reasoning.

Being able to factor in the needs of others is adaptive for an individual on several levels.  At the core is the family.  Most obviously, parents who tune in to their child’s needs will be most successful at helping those children survive and mature and pass along their genes to future generations.  However, it is also in the survival interests of a child to do what they can, within their abilities, to be helpful to the parents, because parents who are healthier and stronger are better able to care for their children.  Similarly, it is in a child’s survival interests to look out for the well-being of their siblings, and any other family relatives with whom they must cooperate and rely upon day to day.  And same goes with non-family members who are part of the close-knit tribe, even if they are not genetically related, or only distantly so.  For small children, this is mostly a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” principle; for older children and adults, with their capacity to reciprocally share resources and skills, it becomes “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”

Now, in addition to the adaptive benefits that come from having a tendency to aid others in one’s social group, there is also a benefit simply in being perceived by others as a reliable non-threat.  Since humans operate in groups, and must live and act in proximity to each other, it would be a great drain on our mental focus if we needed to be constantly vigilant against the possible threats born by those around us. Likewise, it would be a drain on the capacities of those upon whom we relied for cooperative efforts, if they needed to be constantly vigilant against us. In order to be someone who does not elicit a vigilance response in the other humans that we regularly interact with, or even just share space with, it is important to have a sense of their point of view, and their needs, and the motivation to take those needs into account as we construct our own behaviors. If we are able to successfully anticipate the needs of others whom we are frequently in proximity to, and enact that sense through our behaviors, then those others can learn to relax their vigilance around us, in other words to trust us. When we are trusted, we receive support, cooperation, and, at the very least, the freedom to pursue our goals without challenge and obstruction.

Of course, survival also depends on knowing how to perceive and fight off threats from other people who are not intent on cooperating. There is a branch of mathematics, called Game Theory, that formally studies models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent decision makers (thank you Wikipedia.)  In computer simulations, game theorists have found that the most adaptive strategy in a multi-player setting that requires a balance of cooperation and self-protection is one that they have named “Tit For Tat.”  The approach of “Tit For Tat” is to offer tentatively helpful, trust-building behaviors, and continue this way as long as the other player reciprocates.  If, on the other hand, the other player at some point responds aggressively to cooperative gestures, then the Tit-for-Tat program will retaliate, and lower it’s estimation of that players trust-worthiness until the other player adjusts it’s behavior to a more cooperative style.

Compassion as Instinct

I believe that for most humans (and probably most social animals) something similar to “Tit-for Tat” has evolved as a basic aspect of our psychology.  This allows us to relax our vigilance around trustable people, so that we can gain the full benefits of social cooperation, while still being primed to defend against those who show themselves to be threats. I believe that that the capacity to feel the pain, joy and needs of others (who have not disqualified themselves for this consideration) has evolved in most humans as an instinctual response, similar to hunger, thirst, tiredness, or sexual attraction. We don’t have time to pause and calculate with our rational, conscious minds, in every situation, “what might this other person be feeling? Will it ultimately benefit me, even indirectly, to support them?” just like we don’t rely on conscious reasoning to decide that it’s time to eat, or that our body needs to lie down at this time of the day. Instead, we feel hungry, we feel tired, and we (or most of us, at least) instinctively feel sympathy/compassion/caring/identification for/with other people.

Sociopaths Lack (Or Are Free From)  the Compassion Instinct

If you have read this far, thank you, and let me tell you that I am now getting to the point.  I have argued that we should look at compassion as an evolved, hard-wired instinct that drives the  behavior of most people, because it is an effective social strategy. Similarly we can view sociopathy as an alternate social strategy, one that is adaptive for an individual who is embedded in a culture of people who are mostly hard-wired for empathy. On an instinctual level, the sociopath has nothing driving his/her behavior except the basic motivators of hunger, sex, thirst, curiosity, power garnering, sensual pleasure, and thrill seeking. The sociopath is not restricted by any built-in sense of caring about the pain or pleasure of others and thus experiences greater freedom than most people in pursuing self interest. Compared to people with standard wiring, a sociopath has many more options in any given situation. Not only is the sociopath more free to follow the basic instinct to pursue personal pleasure, but the sociopath, compared to a person with an instinctual sense of sympathy, has an intellect that is more free to follow pure logic and utilize unemotional reasoning and problem solving. Ironically, this detachment can at times help a sociopath to be effective in helping other people. Therapists, lawyers and mediators, for example, who are sociopaths, can offer their clients a detached, calculated perspective that is unencumbered by ordinary human sentimentality.

Although there are obvious benefits to a sociopath in not being instinctively tethered to feeling sympathy for other people, there are significant drawbacks as well. As I discussed earlier, one of the benefits to an individual of treating others well is that it leads to being treated well reciprocally; to being included as a trusted member of the group. Meanwhile, behaviors that reveal a lack of hard-wired caring for other humans will mark the perpetrator of such behaviors as a hostile outsider not deserving of the trust and protection of the group. In order to receive the trust of others and not become a target, the sociopath needs to constantly, consciously, and very calculatedly fake the sort of feelings of concern, caring and compassion that come automatically to normal people. Furthermore, I believe that along with a built in sense of compassion, ordinary humans have evolved an instinct for sniffing out sociopaths and their attempts to fake ordinary human empathy. We are hard-wired to be on the look out for the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sociopaths, once they are found out, get treated as less-than-human monsters, thus sociopaths must work very hard to blend in. Those sociopaths who are successful at hiding their true nature while stealthily taking advantage of their lack of hard-wired scruples are therefore probably on the high end of the intelligence scale for all people. Those who are not suitably intelligent will tend to end up in prison, not get hired for jobs, or find themselves rejected by society in some other fashion.  So, I would speculate that there is evolutionary pressure for sociopathy to be paired with above average intelligence, even though the sociopaths who are visible may not tend to be among the smartest of them.

So these are my most basic thoughts about what sociopaths are and how they fit into the overall scheme, the moral eco-system, if you will, of human society.  As I’ve explained, my plan for this blog is to ramble about various topics, some weightier than others.  This post is meant to be number one in a series on sociopathy interspersed with the others.  Please check back for my further explorations.

Priority Paralysis, Get Thee Behind Me!

images-2Writing the intro post for my blog was fairly easy — it didn’t require a lot of decisions.  Now, here it is time for me to write my first real post and I’m gripped by priority paralysis.  What should the topic be?  I have quite a backlog of ideas that I want to explore.  Which one should I start with?  Does the first post get short shrift because, maybe, later on, I’ll have a much bigger audience? Or is it important for the first post to be a blockbuster? Why am I even doing this at all?  I could be exercising or cleaning my house, or volunteering in a soup kitchen.  Now, I’m wondering how many people’s second blog post is just this sort of self-doubting, self-referential meandering.  It also occurs to me that the wide scope of my chosen subject matter is making things worse.  If this were a new blog about, say, mowing lawns, I suppose it would still be tough to settle on my first topic, but since the theme of this blog is “the thoughts of Greg Dember” which could be anything, then we can multiply the anxiety that would theoretically attend ramping up a lawnmower blog by, approximately, INFINITY.

I can indeed say that a lot of the future material in this blog will have to do with psychology and the variety of mental states that humans experience.  So, what is the deeper layer underneath priority paralysis?  One might speculate that it is depression – an inability to feel passionate about the potential in any one of a myriad of options that are available.  But a manic state could also lead to a kind of priority paralysis — a rapid switching of focus that in the end leaves a creative person in the same place they started.  Or priority paralysis could be the result of a schizophrenic-like inability to filter out irrelevant stimuli.  Ha. <<—-  That’s me laughing at myself. I really am just rambling now.

OK, here are some topics that I hope to cover, soon.  Which one goes first will be the surprise.

1. Sociopaths! Why they exist, why they are cool sometimes, why they are dangerous often, what we can learn from them.  Probably worthy of multiple installments.
2. Generations.  As in Boomer, GenX, Y, etc…
3. The theology of virtual reality (for my friend Hayden)
4. My Theory of the Symbiotic Mind (multiple installments for sure)
5. My own urgency about having my creativity witnessed
6. Probably lots of cross-posting from the Metamodernist blog
7. Why I think Jimmy Page was the greatest musical genius, across all genres, of the twentieth century
8. etc…
9. etc…

Hi. I’m Greg.

When I was in high school, I had a few friends who lovingly teased me by coining a term for my oft-offered insights, theories and words of wisdom.  They called them “Demberisms.”  At the time, I would feign a certain bemused irritation each time I heard the expression, but, of course, I was secretly flattered that that they were making note of my speculations.

Many years later, I don’t get teased for my ponderous musings so much.  More likely, from one supportive friend in particular, I get “when are you going to start writing some of this stuff down?”  She urged me to create some kind of a structure for expressing my thoughts so, finally, here it is.  My prediction is that most of it will be arm-chair sociology, social psychology and cultural criticism, and maybe some journal-style sharings of the excitements and frustrations of someone striving to have his voice heard in a loud world. Hopefully, I’ll be funny sometimes.

It should be noted that I have a few other online outlets, but this one will serve the purpose of providing an outlet for frequent, unlabored blurtings that don’t require justification of fitting into a category, and can be as long or short or indulgent as I want.

My other online efforts:
http://www.artocratic.com   —  an online magazine using “art” as a jumping off point to ask the question “What’s it like to be…  ?”
http://artocratic.tumblr.com  —  a fast and loose Tumblr blog for Artocratic, where we give teasers from the magazine, and repost stuff by other people that we think is cool.

http://whatismetamodern.com  — a joint effort between Linda Ceriello (my Artoctratic co-editor) and me to document examples of MetaModernism.

http://gregdembermusic.com —  the online home for my singer-songwriter self

And you can find me pretty easily on Facebook, as well as FB pages for all the entitites mentioned above.