Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Saying No

Well, it's the 4th of July, and that means it's time for a post about freedom. This will conclude the posts on anxiety, so you can stop worrying about it.


You can split the concept of "rights" and freedom into two main concepts. One is what you are expressly given the capacity to do, which is called a positive liberty. The other is a negative liberty, which is a description of what won't be done to you.

Simple example time. The positive liberty component of "you may go wherever you like" is granted by having the ability to go where you like. The negative liberty component is that other people don't stop you. You may have a negative liberty on going to space--the government shall not grab you by the shoulders and keep you from leaping into space--but that doesn't mean you have a positive liberty to do so, either because you skip leg day or you don't own a spaceship. Nobody is stopping you, you just can't. A government-granted positive liberty would look something like "all citizens have the right to free spaceship rides, which the government shall provide."

The short version is that negative liberty is freedom from, and positive liberty is freedom to.

I'm going to focus on negative liberty today. Specifically, I've been thinking about the concept of saying "no." So let's think about cell walls. The biological kind of cell.

The cells of your body have membranes in order to keep things from going in and out very easily. A completely impermeable membrane would not let anything in or out. As it becomes more and more permeable, more stuff can sneak in or leak out, until eventually you have a completely porous membrane... which is to say, no membrane at all. At that point there isn't a cell, there's just a bunch of stuff that floats next to each other until other stuff knocks them around or gobbles them up.

In Infinitum, I talked about how it feels like I can't stop myself from thinking about endless possibilities, different outcomes, different ways that I could do things better, or different ways that things could be wrong. Recently, it occurred to me that this is a bit like cell with a highly porous membrane. The inability to keep things out can get easily leave your mind filled with junk. There's a trade-off there, which is a completely impermeable membrane could not allow in things like nutrients, or get rid of toxic metabolic by-products. And after that, we get terms like "open-minded" and "closed-minded" and we can see how the extreme version of both is easily dangerous for the mind.

Well, your cells have boundaries--their membranes--for the sake of their health. In relationships, you set boundaries with other people for the sake of both your health and the relationship's health. So it is with your mind. Your mind needs boundaries, for the sake of its health. When it comes to cells, you have a phospholipid bilayer. When it comes to your mind, you have the word "no," and I've found myself relying on that word more and more.

"No" is negative liberty verbalized. "No, you don't get to do that to me." And in this case, it's freedom from the thoughts and ideas that abduct my mind without my say-so. My brain has a lot of imagination. It gets very quickly carried away with new chains of thought, new associations, new ideas, new possibilities, new everything, and I find that I can be rather bad at saying "no" to those things. This is where practicing mindfulness has proven useful; I hear the thoughts relatively quickly, which is what allows me to tell them "no" before they sap my energy or distract me from what I was supposed to be doing. "No," in this context, is freedom from distraction, freedom from having to manage an endless slew of self-invented variables, freedom from having so many thoughts running around my head that I don't know where to start or how I'll ever finish.

Or--especially during the summer without classes or homework to think about--there are many times where I'll find myself sitting around with spare time and wondering what I should do, and finding that I just can't pick. I can imagine myself doing too many different things. Just thinking about it tires me out before I even pick one. I can't answer the question "what do I want to do?" because then my brain goes "well, what about this instead?" It can find so many acceptable answers that it begins to devalue all of them.

This is where "no" becomes useful. For instance, today I wasn't sure if I wanted to stream something, write something, practice guitar, clean up, or... maybe something else? It was hard to say yes to anything. The thing that got me motivated was saying "no." Specifically, this particular blog post came to mind, and when I thought "do I want to write it?" I found other stuff competing with it in my brainspace. So instead of saying "I want to"--because I wanted to do other stuff too, and that wasn't narrowing it down any--I found inside myself a minor revulsion to the idea of leaving this post unwritten. So I said no, I don't want to do that. That shoved everything else aside, and now here we are.

I think an immediate potential objection to this is that focusing on the negative aspect--particularly when it comes to a question like "what do you want to do?" versus "what don't you want"--is that it seems like it leaves out the possibility for things like fun or enjoyment. So I'll conclude with an example where that turned out not to be the case.

Somewhat recently, I got a watch, and for the process of buying it, I decided I was going to be really picky. I had a few ideas in mind of what I wanted, but I felt a determination to say "no" to a lot of different watches, because they can get expensive and I was damn sure I wouldn't buy one that I didn't really like. I went out a few times, looked online, and tried on a lot of watches, and said "no" to just about all of them. Rather than focusing on the positives--because I can talk myself into anything--I focused on things about them that immediately bugged me, or that I immediately didn't like. Too big, too shiny, not quite the right font for the numbers on the face, or the color of the dial didn't contrast the background enough, whatever the objection, I said "no" and went looking for a different one.

During the process, I started to notice that as I focused on things I didn't like, it made the things I did like start to pop out more. I started to notice watches that made me say "ooooh" like I'd just found treasure. I began noticing what specifically was making me dislike and like the watches I was looking at. Long story short, I finally found the watch I wanted, and seven months later I still look at it and smile.

The thing is, narrowing down a single choice didn't just mean coming up with reasons why I might like the one I was looking at. Like I said, I've got a very active imagination. I can come up with lots of reasons, whether they turn out to be true or not. That was never going to help me pick. If I wanted to narrow down from the hundreds of watches that I looked at, I had to start saying "no." If I knew specifically why I was saying "no," even better, because it gave me a way to filter all the future examinations.

Choices come from thoughts, so why not apply the concept to as well? Your mind needs boundaries, after all. Say no, loudly and clearly, to the unhelpful and distracting ones. Give yourself negative liberty from them. Feel free!

Thanks for reading.