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Somebody asked me the other day, “Why do you want to be a doctor of psychology?”

I thought about it for a moment, and then replied, “I can’t think of anything I’d rather devote my life to than the science of human behavior.”

“But psychology isn’t a science,” he said.  “I mean, at least not a real science like chemistry or physics.”

Though I didn’t really care if psychology was a “real science” or not, the idea did poke my interest a bit.  So when I went home, I looked up the definition of science.  According to Wikipedia, science is “any systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a correct prediction, or reliably-predictable type of outcome. In this sense, science may refer to a highly skilled technique, technology, or practice, from which a good deal of randomness in outcome has been removed.”

O.K.  Well let’s test some things out.  I must admit that physics and chemistry truly fit this definition quite well.  For example, through the scientific method, we have determined that when two hydrogen atoms bind to an oxygen atom, this results in the atomic structure for what we know as water.  No matter how many times this binding takes place, the result will be the same : water.  Thus, the systematic knowledge-based practice of chemistry has allowed us to remove all randomness of outcomes in this situation.  We can say that this practice results in a correct prediction.  When you bind two hydrogen atoms to an oxygen atom, you will get a water molecule.  Using this example, we can easily say that chemistry fits the definition of science.

What about physics?  Let’s take a scientifically derived equation from physics.  Force is equal to the mass of an object multiplied by its acceleration.  So we have an object of mass ‘x’ grams, with an acceleration of ‘y’ m/s2, which results in a force of ‘z’ Newtons.  This will occur every time, without fail, without question.  Using the above logic, we see that physics seems to fit the definition of science as well.

So my friend seems to be right about two things.  1. Chemistry is a real science.  2.  Physics is a real science.  But what about psychology?  Is psychology a “real science?”  I think I may have the answer.  In the field of psychology, clinical psychology to be specific, we use the scientific method to study human behavior.  The scientific method requires that you first start with a question.

For example, what is the most effective and reliable treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Once we have a question, we formulate hypotheses.

For example, I hypothesize that the most effective and reliable treatment for PTSD will be antidepressant medication as well as brief psychodynamic intervention.  I believe that the combined treatment will be more effective than medication alone, and be more effective than brief psychodynamic intervention alone.

Once we have created our hypotheses, we now make a valiant attempt at formulating a way to test our hypotheses, with as few confounding variables as possible.

For example, we will perform a longitudinal study on a group of 300 individuals with the clinical diagnosis of PTSD.  We will normalize across the sample for socio-economic status, age, and severity of trauma.  100 subjects will be given antidepressant medication only.  100 subjects will be given brief psychodynamic intervention only.  And 100 subjects will be given medication plus brief psychodynamic intervention.  After 12 weeks, we will obtain outcome measures via self-report surveys, personality inventories, and reports from family.

Once we have designed a test, we then perform the test.  When we obtain our results, we then make a conclusion.

For example, based on statistically significant improvement in outcomes, we can conclude that brief psychodynamic intervention, combined with antidepressant medication, yields higher positive outcomes than medication alone, or treatment alone, for patients suffering from PTSD.

This is not a real study, nor are they real results.

So we see now, that clinical psychology uses the “real” scientific method in hopes to lessen variability in outcomes for people suffering from behavioral disorders.  So in this sense, we’re a real science.  But let’s examine this a bit further.  Though we use the scientific method, we can never truly eliminate variability in outcome in psychology.  Why is that?  Well, let’s go back to our chemistry example.  When dealing with water, you know that you are dealing with the ratio of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  This is unchanging.  You can make more of it, or less of it, but its basic atomic structure is still the same.  As a result, we can make predictions about how this molecule will behave.  For example, we can study it to determine what it reacts with, whether it’s acidic or basic, what its specific heat is, etc.  With this information, we can accurately and flawlessly predict how this molecule will behave in nature.

What makes psychology different is that the object that we are studying is human behavior.  And the elements that make up our behavior, arguably, are our biological make-up, our experiences, and the evolution of humans as a species over thousands of years.  Because the biology and the tangible experiences of each human is so vastly different, there is no way to accurately remove all variability in behavior.  This is where psychology becomes beautiful, creative, dynamic.  The psychologist cannot simply follow an algorithm or a rubric as the physicist or chemist does.  What we do, is we use current scientific psychological research to empirically determine what type of treatment will be statistically most likely to be effective on a certain population.  But no person with PTSD will respond exactly the same to a treatment as another person.  This is where psychology asks its practitioners to be creative.  Ethically, in my opinion, we must apply the treatment that is the most likely to be effective, but we also have to consider culture, gender, age, socio-economic background, previous mental health concerns, ethnicity… an endlessly diverse number of variables in the human condition that will affect each person’s outcome.  So we use science, we use “real science,” and then we creatively monitor and vary treatments according to how the subject behaves.  Imagine how volatile water would be if every molecule behaved differently, even under the same conditions.  Imagine how boring humans would be if every human behaved exactly the same under the same conditions.  Maybe psychology isn’t a “real science.”  And I don’t care.  I’m not saying it is or it isn’t.  If it’s not, I’m glad it’s not.   If it is, I’m glad it is.

What I do know is that we cannot treat people, the objects of psychological science, as we do other objects of science.  And it is my opinion that the field of psychology often goes in that direction.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, attempts to assign a list of symptoms and labels to people who have mental disorders.  For example, according to the DSM IV, in order to have PTSD, “The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior) (Criterion A2). The characteristic symptoms resulting from the exposure to the extreme trauma include persistent reexperiencing of the traumatic event (Criterion B), persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (Criterion C), and persistent symptoms of increased arousal (Criterion D). The full symptom picture must be present for more than 1 month (Criterion E), and the disturbance must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (Criterion F).”  If the patient under consideration meets the criteria for diagnosis, then the practitioner has a list of effective treatments in hopes of alleviating PTSD symptoms.  One of the many problems in the DSM, in my opinion, is that you can find several anxiety disorders and even major depressive disorders that have almost identical criteria for diagnosis.  Thus, we find in the field that the reliability, or the ability of one practitioner to make the same diagnosis as another, is extremely poor.  The same patient, having discussed the same symptoms with multiple practitioners, could easily receive 4 or 5 different diagnoses, and thus receive different treatments.  This categorical approach to behavior is flawed, and takes away from the fluid process that psychological treatment should entail.

So, why do I want to be a doctor of psychology, you ask?  Well, I can’t think of anything I’d rather devote my life to than the science of human behavior.  It’s a fluid science, a creative science, a dynamic science.  It’s not categorical.  We can’t place humans in categories.  We behave on a continuous scale.  We don’t behave the same in nature, as water does.  We are as diverse as we are vast.  And, as a doctor of psychology, I will not treat humans as categories, nor will I endorse statistical manuals that promote that.  I don’t know the direction that the field will go.  But I know that soon, I’ll have a say in it.  And that’s why I want to be a doctor of psychology.

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People ask me all the time why I don’t write more.  I wish I had the answer.  I don’t know.  I like to think funny answers in my head, like, “Well as a result of a series of unfortunate medical events, my creative side has been absolutely severed beyond any and all repair.”  This, of course, is not true.  What is true, maybe, is that I’m just scared.  Us writers stare at blank pages in fear, knowing that the black ink that soon will fill in the blank space is our own vulnerable and naked selves.  My defenses are down here.  The only one that can hurt me is me.

On that note, I don’t know why I sat down tonight to write.  I have a thirty minute presentation in my childhood psychopathology class due at 10:00 tomorrow morning.  Ideally, I would be working on that.  But here I sit.  And for what purpose?  To please the people who ask me to write more?  No.  Maybe.  I hope not.  But upon returning to my apartment tonight, I was greeted by that old sensation, that old urge, and here I sit.

I suppose that’s preface enough for the subject of tonight’s nonsense, which is, I’ll have you know, still being discovered.  It seems as if tonight I don’t know much.  The last several months is just a smearing of images; some great, some neutral, some terrible.  Despite constant vane attempts at meditation and prayer, I’m unable to be in the moment.  In fact, I could say that more than half of my days right now consist of one voice arguing with the others to stay in the moment.

I came home tonight, and was greeted with the pleasant surprise of a kitchen full of new groceries.  Though I know I went grocery shopping earlier, I am unable to make a connection to the person who did the act.  Sartre called it “nausea.”  Good old existential angst brought on by who knows what.  Some have tried to tell me it’s post traumatic stress.  Some would say I’m just not working my spiritual life as best as I should.  Some suggest that I just be easy on myself, take it easy Zack, the last few months have been hell.  Some say that episode is over, let’s move on.  And then we have me, my head, my ideas, and my arguments, all taking place with myself, agreeing and disagreeing over and over again.  My therapist suggests it’s my way of trying to control anxiety and pain, a defense mechanism birthed from the last few months.  I say I just want my life back.  I want some stability back.  One minute I’m a little boy awestruck by the enormity of life, the next I’m an adult who meets challenges with calm and confidence.  But oh, what’s the difference anyways?

What’s life anyways but a smothering of uncertainties and ambiguities?  What’s life but a collage of images?  Some make me smile, some make me cry, some make me angry and vengeful, most make me laugh.  They come and go, like the weather, like my moods.  And I’m stuck here trying to make sense of it all, trying to make the “right” decisions with my life.  All I want to do is run…. from my feelings, from tomorrow, from yesterday, from you.  I didn’t use to feel this way.  But I’ve gone back into protective mode.  That old threatening aura has returned to every object and person I lay eyes on.  It used to take drugs and alcohol for it all to seem less threatening.  Now, ha… What?  Now I’ve got new tools I guess.  Sometimes they work.  Sometimes they don’t.

I guess I’m supposed to just be patient.  Practice patience, acceptance, and tolerance, of others and especially of myself.  I regurgitate these words every night in my bed, say them so much these days that they have almost lost their meaning, almost become simply air that blows out of my mouth, a physical act done out of habit, because it makes me comfortable, even if just for those few seconds.  But despite how I feel right now, one thing I know.  I’m going to wake up early tomorrow, get my presentation straight, show up, put an interested face on, and practice patience, acceptance, and tolerance…. whatever the hell that means.

Spirit

I walk into the first floor of Alta Bates medical center.  It’s the fifth day in a row.  I walk up to the front desk.  “Hi, Zack Bein, I have a 1:00.”

“Okay, you’re getting labs and treatment today.  Take a seat and we’ll call you.”  Big smile.

I take the pager and go sit down.  Around me is a room full of patients, like myself, needing treatment.  Many are here for chemotherapy.  Some are here for platelets.  But me, I’m here for fresh frozen plasma.  They don’t see many of us.  To my left, an older white woman sits quietly with a bandana on her head to cover her bald scalp.  She stares at the posters on the wall and drinks the complimentary tea.  “We love our clinical research team.  Feel free to ask questions to our helpful staff.  We care about your comfort.” To my right, an old Asian woman sits, a hat covering her bald scalp.  The nurse exits the treatment room and enters the waiting room.  All of the patients anxiously watch their pagers, hoping for vibration.  It’s the Asian woman next to me.  “Hi Tina,” she says to the nurse.

“Hello… Come with me.”  The Asian woman gets up and follows Tina into the treatment room.  I exhale, look at the clock, and then back down at the tiled floor.  Soon it’s my turn.  I see Tina come out and she’s looking right at me.  “You must be Zack.  I knew I could find you by just looking for the youngest one in here.”
“Yup.”

“Follow me sweetie.” I do as I’m told. “What are you getting treatment for in here?  You’re so young!”

“Umm, I have a plasminogen deficiency.”  Stop talking to me.

“A what?  What’s that mean?”

“I don’t really know.”  She laughs.  I laugh.  The other nurse enters the room.

“I could recognize that laugh anywhere.  How you doin’ baby?”

“I’m alright,” I respond.  Get me out of here.

“You so handsome, ain’t he Tina.  Bet you got all the girls stoppin’ to look at you.”

“I don’t think so,” I reply.

“You got a girlfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah you do.  She brunette?”

“Blonde.”

“She talk to you first?”

“No.  I talked to her first.”

“Well, keep smilin’ baby.  We just need your vital signs and your weight.”  The blood pressure cuff squeezes my arm.  I put my school books down and hop on the scale.  I follow them to the treatment room.  The treatment room is one of the more interesting environments I’ve ever been exposed to.  And, as a writer, it’s one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever witnessed.  In the treatment room, two very different and distinct worlds exist.  There is the world of the patient, forced to relinquish their sense of identity and sense of self, to be attached to machines, to be poked with needles, squeezed with cuffs, injected with medicines, transfused with blood, exposed to radiation, forced to talk to nurses, sequestered and subdued in a treatment chair, in a treatment room, full of patients, like myself.  Then there’s the world of the nurse practitioner.  These people are forced to watch, to participate, to do the sequestering, to do the subduing, to stick the needles, to inject the medicine, to talk to us patients.  We are the objects.  They are the dissociated and unknowing hands of doctor’s orders.  The most interesting ones are the ones who dissociate completely.  They come in, talking to their fellow nurse about the Halloween outfit they are going to wear this weekend, whether they are going to drink or not, how so and so usually gets all dressed up and I wonder if they’ll get dressed up this year.  Meanwhile they busily attach lines to patients, complete paperwork, monitor vital signs, paying seemingly no attention whatsoever to what they are doing or who they are doing it to.  These type are always the most interesting for us patients.  I look at the guy next to me, all hooked up to machines like I am, and we have a simple moment of acknowledgment, as two people living through the same experience, knowing what each other is feeling.  That five seconds of looking at each other communicates more than any words could.  And we both know that… and decide to keep quiet.

“Okay… Name and birth date please,” the nurse says, holding a bag of frozen plasma.

“Zachary Bein, 6/27/83.”  I’m automatic.  Those words mean nothing.

Okay… donor number 85K4909, patient number 1323343, donor type O +, patient type O +, this is thawed frozen plasma.  We’re going to give you your premeds first Zack because of your reaction last time.  25 mg of Benadryl through the IV and 20 mg of Decadron.  The Benadryl is gonna make you feel really sleepy and the Decadron usually gives people headaches.”  So much for studying.  So much for schoolwork.  So much for grad school applications.

“Okay,” I reply.  Get your fucking needles out of my arm.

“What’s that say?  On your arm?” the nurse asks.

“It says spirit.”

“Oh really?  How cool.”  I wait for her to ask me what it means.  She doesn’t.  The nurse leaves the room.  I hear a faint voice from across the room.

“What does it mean?” one of the patients asks.

“It means a lot of different things,” I reply.  “But mostly, it reminds me that whatever happened before, and whatever is going to happen in here, it can’t break my spirit.  My spirit never left me, and it never will.”

“That’s beautiful.  Thank you.”

“Thank you.”  And I sat there and thought about that for awhile.  I thought about the last two months of my life, wondering how I’ve been able to show up… for meetings, for school, for my internship, for my friends, for grad school, to go to the gym 5 days a week, to run the bleachers on the track, to come to this hospital for 4 hours a day, to have two surgeries, to have chronic severe pain, … and still show up.  And I looked down at the tattoo on my arm.  Something’s been carrying me.  I can’t do this shit on my own.  I’m exhausted.  I’m absolutely drained.  But somehow, tonight, when I got home from the hospital, I went to the gym and worked out.  Then I came home and made dinner.  Then I finished my personal statement for the doctoral programs I’m applying to.  Then I ordered official sealed transcripts from Santa Monica College to send to all the grad schools I’m applying to, then completed my recommendation packets, filled with my resume and personal statement and detailed instructions with deadlines and thank you notes, and sent my GRE scores to grad schools.  Then I returned phone calls, talked to somebody about their struggle with applying to college, agreed to revise their college essays, returned more phone calls, talked to my father about what happened today in the hospital, talked to Enrique about spirit, and how, right now, that’s all that’s carrying me.  Plus the love and support of the people in my life.  It ain’t me.  I’m fucking exhausted.  I’m done.  Running on reserves.  And tomorrow, I’ll wake up at 8:00 am, make my breakfast, and go see the doctor to talk about the reaction I had to the transfusion.  They’ll run their labs, I’ll talk to the nurses.  Then I’ll go to the gym and work out.  I’ll go to the track and do the bleachers, letting out a bellow when I reach the top.  The track runners will look at me, and I’ll smile.  Then I’ll go back to Alta Bates and get my treatment, see the patients, see the nurses, answer the questions, surrender, surrender to the machines and the blood and the drugs.  And everything is going to be okay.  I don’t know how long this is the way my life is going to be.  But I sense the end of these hospital visits is near.  And my tattoo on my arm will carry me.  You may be thinking that I’m dramatic.  And I don’t care.  Because I’d rather live fully, I’d rather feel passionately, I’d rather express myself entirely, than do anything else at all.

“It says spirit,” I say.  “It means a lot of different things.  But mostly, it carries me when I’m exhausted.  It reminds me of my grandmother’s hands when I need support.  It’s the one word that my mother thinks of when she thinks of me.”  And it’s going to pick me up, out of this treatment chair, down the fluorescent lit hallway of cold tiled floors, and walk me out of this hospital,  straight into another day.

berkeley_marina

Put the glasses on.  Set the font to Garamond, size twelve.  Line spacing 1.3.  This is how I write.  I’ve written this way for years now.  My old Sauconies, the black ones with the black laces, I keep them by the door.  The two pairs of new ones, black on charcoal and red and black on white, I keep them in the opposite corner of the room, next to this ugly dresser that my landlord had here when I moved in a year ago.  I keep my running shoes next to my hamper in my room.  I eat the same breakfast every morning.  One cup of coffee.  Egg whites with spinach and mozzarella cheese.  Oatmeal with peanut butter.  Another cup of coffee.

It’s always interesting when I realize how much I try to control the little things.  The form I write in, the placement of the shoes, they don’t change.  And it’s when life changes dramatically, out of nowhere, unexpected, that I realize why I do these things.

Bukowski once wrote that “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”  I’ve had the book on my shelf for years now and read it many times.  But I’d never taken the time to think about that sentence.

Today, I was running in the Marina.  About five miles into the run I decided to turn and go down the pier.  The wind suddenly shot into my direction, blasting my face and pushing against me.  It shocked me for a moment, but I pushed back against it.  My feet were heavy, my steps were short and forced, my breath wasn’t coming easily.  I started to look around at the people.  An elderly couple stood at the railing watching the water crash against the rocks.  A family was throwing line from a fishing pole into the water.  The kids sat and watched with childhood eagerness and wonder.  Another couple was walking their dog.  The wind pushed the dog’s skin back and I could see his teeth.  I giggled to myself as I ran by, and thought about how different each moment is for each of us.  The kids in awe of a fishing pole, the old couple staring at the water reflecting on a long life, the dog antagonized by the wind.  And me, running, pushing myself against the wind, cramps in my calves, cramps in my side, pushing myself again.  The pier seemed to go on forever.  I ran into that wind for what seemed like hours.  Every muscle, every ache told me to stop.  And then I got to the end, did a half-circle and turned to head back down the pier.  Now, the wind was guiding me, pushing me from behind.  My feet felt lighter, my steps got easier.  I was able to relax and breathe.  And that line came to me out of nowhere.  What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.

I had big plans for the rest of the summer.  I was going to take the GRE on August 16th, next Thursday.  I’ve been studying hard, and I’m ready.  I was going to finish my grad school applications.  I was going to be here, in Berkeley.  But, as usual, there’s something quite different in store for me.  A random twist of events have foiled my plans.  A fear is becoming reality.

But on that pier today, I had a moment of clarity.  One of those moments where I really know everything’s going to be fine.  How many times in life are we not going to get what we want?  How many times are our plans going to be stripped away by some unexpected twist of events?  How many times will we be faced with our fears?  How many times are we going to have to walk through the fire?  Countless.  Change is immovable.  But yet I’m still so scared of it.  It pushes so many old buttons.  So I keep different pairs of shoes in different places, I type with the same font and same spacing, I eat the same breakfast every day, in the same way.  And I know why. And that’s fine with me.  I get it.  I’m not going to lie and say I don’t.  But none of that matters.  Because we do what we can.  Because what matters most is how well you walk through the fire.

pen-paper

I attended a career seminar yesterday for Psychology Majors. There, I learned all of the “transferrable skills” that I would gain by majoring in psych. Here’s a few: “Ability to communicate and present ideas and information, ability to understand and improve human relationships, ability to promote healthy relationships, concern and sensitivity for others, decision making, empathy, evaluates personal problems and makes appropriate decisions, good listener, insight to deal effectively with people, problem solving…” etc. And as I was going down the list, I began to think to myself… I can already do all of this shit. What am I wasting my time for? Oh, but Zack, don’t be silly! You’re here to get the degree, so you can get the next degree, and then the culminating degree. And then, you can charge more money for your transferrable skills that you have mastered by majoring in psychology. Right? Or is it the prestige? To be able to say I got a degree from a top-notch university, and then another degree from another one, and blah blah blah. It’s table talk then. Is that it? To be able to impress my future wife’s parents? Or to be able to say UC Berkeley when I run into old acquaintances?

Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe I’m just taking the next right action. Get my shit together, get a job, go back to school, then transfer to a University. It was just the next step in the assembly line of Zack. This is just one foot in front of the other. The truth of the matter is, I just don’t know. If I had some unbridled passion for something, or some grand purpose, I think all of this would be easier. I’ve often envied people where this was the case. A few years back, I went to see a jazz show at the Jazz Bakery in LA. Afterwards, the guy on the bass guitar was outside smoking a cigarette, and my friends and I approached him to let him know we loved the show. We got to asking him questions, of course, about how he got into it, how long he’d been playing, etc. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like, “Well, you know, I always say I came outta my mom with a bass. Ha! I tell ya boy, long as I can remember, all I’ve wanted to do was just play the bass. Ever since the first time I picked it up, held that bass in my hands, felt the strings under my fingertips…. I knew. I mean, what else in life is there?”

And I remember looking at the dude and being so jealous. To have that passion for something, and know it in your bones. And what else in life is there? Well, that’s definitely not my story. I used to think that writing was my unbridled passion. I’ve even had a couple esteemed writers tell me, “Zack, you’re a writer. There’s nothing you can do about it. Writers are chosen, they don’t choose. Just wait. You’ll see….” And I’ve been waiting. Trust me.

A guy I used to write with, Jack, a mentor of mine, he definitely knows. Writing is it for him. Every wall in his house is lined with bookshelves. He’s got his books organized into his own library. Different time periods, different genres, authors, text books, you name it. Thousands of books. His office, where we used to write, is scattered with drafts, revisions, post-its, poetry, more stuff to edit. He teaches a writing class, he edits for a publishing company, he writes plays, he writes essays, he writes poetry, he writes critiques, he recites Shakespeare and quotes Faulkner. He knows what he is. He’s a writer. That’s his craft. And he’s completely devoted to it. Me, I don’t know what I am. I know that I’m passionate about a lot of things. But I’m not completely devoted to any of them, I don’t think.

And for me, my practice is to learn to be okay with that. For right now, I’m a psychology major at UC Berkeley, getting adept at a list of transferrable skills. I guess, no matter if you have that unbridled and hopelessly-devoted-to passion or not, the real challenge is to have passion for the moment. This moment, right now; whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. And you know, come to think of it, I’m not too bad at that. I may not find that one task that defines me, to be able to say, “and what else in life is there?” than that one thing. But, like a writer, I suppose, I can find meaning and beauty in the every day repetition… in the smiles. Because, at the end of the day, when I put my head on the pillow, it doesn’t matter whether I’m a psychology major, or a writer with a library for a living room, or a personal trainer, or an academic, or a therapist, or a bass guitarist, or what transferrable skills I have. We start each day with a blank page. Today, I’m happy with the words that fill the margins. And what else in life is there?

sunrise_beach

I was walking to my Psych 101 class today, headphones in my ears, and I looked up at the giant Valley Life Sciences Building on UC Berkeley’s campus. I remembered, last Spring, walking through the same exact campus for the first time, staring up at the same exact building, wondering if this was where I’d live the following Fall.

The image of myself walking through campus, arm around the woman I was sure I’d still be with, flashed before my eyes. I tried to put myself in that position again; scared of what the next year would bring, wanting to move to Berkeley but scared of what the separation would bring. But I was so excited…. I was so proud of myself that I even had a chance to go to a school like Cal. And I just stared up at that building….

And now here I am, exactly one year later. I now know all the little things that I was so unsure of. I know that the girl is gone, has been for a while now. I know that I can do well here, that I can succeed in a place like this. I know that it’s okay to move away, to make myself vulnerable again, in a new place with new people. I know that I can survive and do well despite things not having gone exactly how I planned since I moved up here. I want to be able to go back, to go back to that image of myself, with the girl, walking on the campus, and whisper to myself all of these things that I now know. I think that somehow that will protect me. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving up here, it’s not to become too attached to any idea, or any person. These moments are fleeting. People, perceptions, what things mean to you, they all change. Now, when I walk by the Valley Life Science building, I no longer am filled with wonder and accomplishment, but rather disdain at the fact that I have to go listen to a terrible lecturer talk for an hour and twenty minutes about a subject that I could much easier learn on my own. And some of the people I thought I’d be close to forever, are gone. Things I thought I knew, I really didn’t know.

But just because things change, doesn’t mean I can’t still be attached to the images, the moments, the memories. Those don’t change. And I’m so incredibly grateful for all the images, all the moments. And in that moment today on campus, so many images flashed in front of me. From climbing castle walls overlooking the coast of Nice, to trying to drive a rental car in a foreign country, to jumping off of a waterfall in Big Sur, to walking the medieval streets in Eze, to watching boats dock in Monaco, and when I ran for what seemed to be hours on a beach in the Bajamas with no shoes on at sunrise. Oh, and in Ojai, when Burt placed a small rock at my feet to represent our friendship, and told me, very simply, “be patient.” And in Catalina, in 7th grade, for our school trip, when I was the only kid in the entire class that couldn’t make it up the rock climbing wall. Everybody stood at the bottom and watched as I fumbled around and kept falling. And then the following year, in Arizona, the class had to climb up a pole and reach a bell at the top. And guess what? I fuckin’ did it. And now, when I’m running, and I want to quit, and I’ve hit the 6th mile, and the wind is blowing against me hard, and I’m pressed up against all that is pressed up against me, I think about that wall in Catalina, smile, laugh, and keep going. And high school, ahh, high school. The 72 hour days without sleep, the people that came and went like a dream.

There’s so much, too much. And just because the meaning changes, and just because my perception changes, doesn’t mean the images do. They stay the same.  They stay real.  They stay just exactly how I always remembered. Ha. It’s funny how we get so flustered, you know? We get so caught up in how we appear to others, or if this person likes us, or that person doesn’t, what we’re going to do next year, or the next five years, or even tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. I know who I am. I’m proud of all of the images, all of the memories. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And when I remember that, it doesn’t matter how I appear to you, or if you like me or not, or if I’ll go to grad school or not, or how much money I’ll make. Because I’ve got all that I need.

It’s like my buddy Alec said to me, in his car outside of class my senior year of high school. I was upset about something, my grandmother’s death or some surgery I was about to have. He hit the blunt that I had nicely rolled, blew a little smoke out of his mouth, sucked it back in through his nose, and with a cool exhale, said some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard. “It’s all good homie…. It’s all good.”

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I wake up at 7:30, hit snooze, and finally get out of bed 9 minutes later. The sun is creeping in through a small crack between the blinds and the bottom of the window, yet somehow it’s so cold in my room that it feels like my bones are going to snap as I walk. In the morning, I’m a robot. Four eggs, two whole-wheat English muffins, whey protein, vitamin, toothbrush, toothpaste, clothes, backpack, door.

I walk to the bus stop on Shattuck and Ashby. The freezing Berkeley morning air whips my cheeks as I put my hood over my head. And here I wait, for 17 minutes, no matter what time I leave the apartment, with my headphones in my ears and backpack over my shoulders, a Berkeley student, an East Bay local.

On the bus, I move to the back. People’s mouths are moving, but all I can hear is my music. Their expressions change, they move their limbs, their bodies change positions, they smile, they nod their heads, “yes.” I am the observer, in a different world, hearing different sounds. I am part of the iPod generation. In our own worlds, we are in control of our destinies. We are the authors of our own destruction. We put headphones in and forget about everything. We rebel against time and space. We send cries off rooftops to disturb the peaceful population. We close our eyes, and lose our fear of falling, of losing, of living. We’re together but alone. We’re blissful but dead. We’re harmonious but broken. We’re held but isolated. We’re lovers of life. We’re enemies of normalcy. We laugh in the faces of those who judge us.  We form a perfect union, conjure up a balance, create light, poor gasoline on old stomping grounds, set them ablaze and watch giant wildfires pierce holes through the night.

It’s time to get off of the bus. I mutter the words, “thank you,” to the bus driver. But I hear nothing come out of my mouth. Back to the whipping cold of Berkeley air. Gray smoke bleeds through vents in the sidewalk. Welcome to the University of California at Berkeley. I look up to see the large clock tower presiding over the morning, and a large signpost, saying, in big letters, “POSSIBILITY.” Other signposts line the walkway, with pictures and quotes of Cal students.

“I feel like I can do anything here!”

“Cal taught me that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

“Who knew you could be 55 years old and be a Cal graduate!”

Once I’m in class, my headphones still in, again I marvel at the moving mouths, the gestures, the motions. It’s a beautiful dance, a give and take. I take my headphones out and I’m blasted with sounds of voices, snippets of conversations. My ears pick up on the one directly behind me.

“She’s the kind of girl that like, when you first meet her, she’s all quiet, but when you get to know her, she’s really fun. She’s actually pretty amazing.”

I take my books out, put my eyeglasses on, and reflect on all of the little moments, all the little movements that have brought me to this seat, in this classroom, in the Valley Life Sciences Building at the University of California. I can’t help but smile. And then that smile turns into all out laughter. The girl sitting next to me glances at me, but doesn’t say a word. I look back at her, shrug my shoulders slightly, and say, “You know what I mean?”

But to her,

it was just a random moving mouth

with no sound.

It was just a gesture,

a change of expression,

and nothing more.

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You know, there are people, out there, in the world, who contemplate the vast cosmos. They formulate theories on the expansion or compression of the universe, measure the heat given off by quasars, determine the mass of a black hole. I can’t. I took an Astronomy class at a Junior College and got an A though.

There are people in the world who write immense and rich novels, who effortlessly put pen to paper like magic, whose words shake the core of all beings. Not me. I published a book of silly poetry when I was sixteen, and my blog is pretty cool, I guess.

Some people are six and a half feet tall, considered the best athletes in the world, have millions of dollars, can jump four feet in the air, and score eighty points a game. When I was ten years old, I made two free-throws with seven seconds left to win my pee-wee basketball game. My dad’s got it on tape.

Some people renounce the world’s pleasures. They escape to a mountaintop to contemplate existence in silence. They sit still for hours, breathing in and out, becoming one with their surroundings. Then they return from their mountaintop, write famous books, and travel the world in attempts to spread their enlightenment to awestruck crowds. I attend a meditation group once a week. I can’t sit on the floor though, because of a bad knee, and tight hips and back. So I sit on a chair in the back of the room. The teacher says I’m still meditating though. I swear, ask him.

I go to school with some people who don’t even have to study to get good grades. At the high school I went to, there was a guy, Josh, who sat on the tables in the classroom and never once brought a pen, paper, or a backpack to school. Yet, he still got A’s. Everyone called him Jesus. Not me though. I sit in the front row, turn my cell phone off, ask questions when I need help, and spend hours at home relentlessly rehearsing notecards while I do silly laps around my apartment. Sometimes, I’ll abbreviate words on the notecards though. You know, like words I should probably write entirely out.

Some people are born to play music. They pick up drumsticks or a guitar and just play. Some people compose timeless symphonies that move the heart’s mountains. When I was young, I played the Jurassic Park theme song for a piano recital. If you ask me, I got the biggest ovation of the entire day. And one time, I played drums to a Goo Goo Dolls song…. in the dark.

Some people carve mountains with snowboards, doing flips and dodging trees. Me, I’ve got a bruised tailbone from going down a bunny slope. I just bought a butt pad though, so next time, it’s on.

For some people, being social comes naturally. The kids I went to elementary school with are all doctors or lawyers by now.

Me? Well, I’m still finding out about that. One day at a time, I suppose. What’s certain is that I’m not the best at anything. But I sure have done a lot. I guess, if I want to, I can say I am a writer. But if that’s true, then I guess I’m a drummer and piano player too. And in that case, I might as well say I’m a weightlifter and a Jiu-Jitsu fighter. Hmm. Yeah I’m a drum and piano playing, weightlifting, Jiu-Jitsu fighting writer. I’m definitely a student. Okay, okay, so in this culture, where we are defined by what we do, I’m a drum and piano playing, weightlifting, Jiu-Jitsu fighting, meditating, educated writer. That’s it! So next time I’m at Literati Café in Brentwood, and one of my elementary school classmates comes up to me to say hello, and to tell me that they’ve just graduated from Harvard Law School, and now they’re a lawyer, I’ll know exactly what to say.

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I always find it fascinating, how life looks so different each and every year.
I look back at this year as if it were a dream,
as if Camus’s stranger or Dostoevsky’s double has been meddling with my affairs.
I wouldn’t be surprised. After this year, I no longer believe in surprise.
But I remember back, way back, to those times on Santa’s lap.
“What do you want for Christmas, little boy?”
And I would reply with whatever the boy before me had said.
“I want a Tonka Truck and a GI-Joe.”
And I remember thinking to myself,
that I would for sure get that Tonka Truck and GI-Joe,
just because I had asked Santa Claus.
What amazing faith I had as a child.
If you were to ask me what I wanted for Christmas this year,
I wouldn’t have an answer for you. Maybe if I thought about it long enough,
I would come up with something. But, without a doubt,
it’d be something that no person could ever give me.

There’s nothing more that I want. I have everything that I need.
My life is bountiful, plentiful. I know who I am, and those closest to me,
who love me, know exactly who I am too. And they love me because of that.
And it’s got nothing to do with you. Who I am doesn’t depend on you,
or what day it is, or where I am. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted,
more than Tonka Trucks or GI Joe’s… just to know who I am, and be okay with it.
This year has been tough for all of us. And with our noses pressed so close
to the glass of each day, it becomes even tougher. But I do know one thing. Everything’s going to be okay. Tough, but okay.
I may not get the things that I want, or even the things that I need.
And some of you might walk out of my life with the blink of an eye.
And I’ll be left there, my nose to the glass, watching your handprints disappear.
But everything will still be okay.

And next year, when I’m sitting here, again, in my parents’ house,
listening to Nat King Cole sing Christmas carols, I’ll think about the year,
and the ones before it, how I didn’t get my Tonka Truck again.
But I’ll still have me. I’ll still know me.
And that’s something that nobody else can give me.
And there could be no better gift than that.

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Kant vs. Mill: An Exploration of Intentions and Consequences in Ethics

What gives an action moral worth? Is it the intention or the consequence of the action? The philosopher Immannuel Kant would argue that the intention, or the will of the action, is the only thing that could have moral worth. Kant’s ethics of the will has its roots in the idea of duty; that our duty is to act in such a way that our actions can be universalized to all situations. This is what Kant calls the categorical imperative. If the will of our action can be universally appreciated, then we would be acting with moral worth. Conversely, John Stuart Mill would argue that an action has moral worth only if the consequences of that action yield the maximum amount of happiness and pleasure for all sentient beings, disregarding the intention and the will. For Mill, what we intend to occur has no moral worth whatsoever. We could, for example, will that our actions yield nothing but negative consequences, in hopes to ruin or destroy another individual. If, by chance, this action ends up being beneficial to that individual, Mill would consider that action to have moral worth. How can these two drastically different views of morality be reconciled? Well, one way is to consider the faults of each of these different systems of ethics, and determine which system seems to be less problematic. When doing so, one might conclude that one system seems to work better than the other. I will argue that Mill’s view is less problematic than Kant’s ethics of the will, and that Mill’s system offers more realistic alternatives to the problems in Kant’s ethics; those problems being that our intentions are difficult to identify, that the idea of morality is not universalizable, and that consequences must be considered when designing a system of ethics.

Kant’s ethics of the will suggest that the only thing that is certain in our lives is what is inside of us, our will, our desire to do the right thing. The only thing that matters is our subjective inner moral consciousness. Kant built an entire system of ethics around this assumption that all humans inherently have the ability to reason and to discern right from wrong, and based the idea of morality on our will and our intention. But how can our true intention ever really be identified? Can we ever be entirely sure of our intentions? There are endless variables and factors that go into the decisions we make, such as our experience up to that point and the influence that other people have had on us. When faced with a situation that requires a quick decision, it seems absurd to assume that one could take all of these factors into account and be completely aware of all of the things that are shaping the decision in that moment. It seems, then, that our intention may be too difficult to identify before making a decision. Yet, for Kant, it is the touchstone by which all moral worth is granted. Wouldn’t one want something more concrete, something more identifiable when considering if an action has moral worth? This is where Mill’s Utilitarianism offers a more useful alternative. Mill acknowledges that intention is a weak foundation for building a system of ethics, and turns toward something more useful; the consequences of that intention. For Mill, we must gauge moral worth by the result of the action taken. For example, a chemist who works for a pharmaceutical company could tell himself that his intention behind making a certain new drug was to improve the well-being of society (though, of course, the intention could be to gain wealth, fame, acknowledgement, etc). In designing this new drug, this person took all necessary precautions. Yet, upon the release of the new drug, it was discovered to have a fatal reaction with many of those who took it. Kant would, of course, say that this individual had the right intention and a good will, and therefore the action had moral worth. It seems to violate common sense that the fatalities of many innocent people could have moral worth. Mill would disagree, saying that the action did not have moral worth because the consequence of the action was that many people died. This view is much more realistic and does not violate our common sense.

Another large aspect of Kant’s system of ethics is the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative asks us to act upon only those principles that we would choose to become universal laws for all rational beings, unconditionally. An example of a principle of the categorical imperative would be telling the truth. For Kant, telling the truth is a principle that has moral worth, that should be universalized to all situations. One could easily see the problems that arise from this generalization of the usefulness of a principle. One could agree rather easily, that telling the truth does have moral worth, that we would want people to tell us the truth, and that it is, in a sense, good to tell the truth. But, the universalization seems to be where Kant runs into trouble. For example, let’s consider an instance in which telling the truth becomes a different situation entirely. A mentally ill man is in prison because he has gone on a shooting rampage in the middle of the city and killed many people. He has just escaped from the prison and is running from house to house, asking people if they own a gun. He approaches a house of a licensed gun-owner and asks the man if he owns a gun. Now, surely, if the man tells the truth, as Kant would have him do, the mentally ill man would take the gun by force and go on another shooting rampage and kill many people. If the man lies, and tells the mentally ill man that he does not own a gun, he will likely save the lives of many innocent people. Here we see the weakness of the categorical imperative. For Kant, this man’s actions would have moral worth had he told the escaped prisoner that he owned a gun, which would, in turn, kill many innocent people. Once again, we see a situation in which a morally worthwhile action results in terrible consequences. This seems hard to reconcile. But again, we turn to Mill for an alternative. Utilitarianism, with the focus on the consequence, and on the maximization of happiness and pleasure, would surely say that the saving of many innocent people would be the action that would contain the moral worth. This seems to make much more logical sense. In Mill’s ethics, we can focus on what yields the best consequences in each unique situation.

The two examples that we have examined thus far clearly show the importance of consequences when discerning if an action has moral worth. Yet, as stated earlier, Kant’s ethics of the will ignore the consequences of the action, as long as it is done from a sense of duty, so that it may be universally applied. We have also seen how a good will or good intention can lead to an action and a consequence that is bad; or in the examples above, fatal. A system that, theoretically, could do nothing but harm others, is not one that should be given much weight. Mill’s ethics of Utilitarianism, conversely, is grounded in the concepts of maximizing pleasure, happiness, and utility. We can gauge those three ideas by looking at the consequences of our actions.

Critics of Utilitarianism may argue that happiness and pleasure are immeasurable. And this may be true; there is no way to measure how much happiness or pleasure is achieved through a certain action. But this idea does not take away from the substance of the system, only from how we measure how effective the system is; or how much pleasure and happiness is being yielded from an action. Nonetheless, happiness and pleasure are still the consequences of the action in order for there to be moral worth, regardless of the ambiguity of the measured amount. And this seems to be a rather small criticism compared to the several areas of Kant’s ethics I have discussed above.

Another objection some may have to Utilitarianism is the ambiguity of determining if an action will yield good consequences in the immediate or in the long term, and which should be given more weight. For example, should an individual trade what will yield pleasure and happiness in the immediate for what will yield pleasure and happiness in the long run? Critics of Utilitarianism say that this question presents a problem for Mill. Is one type of happiness better than the other? How do we choose between them? And which has more moral worth? Again, this objection pertains to a measurement rather than the actual substance of the system.

Kant and Mill both formulate complex systems of ethics in hopes of understanding human morality. When discussing moral systems, it is difficult, if not impossible, to champion one view as a whole.  No system is flawless.  Morality seems too big of a concept to be understood, even within a complex framework.  So we’re left to consider these systems, and determine for ourselves what resonates.  Often, what we find is that certain systems are less problematic than others.  Kant’s ethics are very problematic because intentions can be difficult or impossible to evaluate and morality is often not universal. Mill offers a less problematic alternative, an ethics based on consequences, which can be more objectively evaluated or realized. The benefit of a system of morality and ethics is that it presents a groundwork in which we as humans can understand ourselves and the world around us. Mill’s Utilitarianism is a good example of a system that points us in the right direction, towards the effect that our actions have on the world around us, rather than a system that pays no attention to the effect we produce on others.