The Power of Powerlessness

I have had a bad habit for most of my life… punching holes in walls or breaking things in anger.  Surprisingly, I don’t think I really have that much of a temper.  I am usually rather patient with people.  I haven’t been in a fight since I was a kid, and I can normally deal with most setbacks rather calmly, in my opinion…. as long as I still have some kind of control or power over the situation.

However, when I am powerless, and the situation is something that is deeply important to me, the frustration sometimes builds into a rage that, if I’m unable to calm myself, can occasionally erupt in a destructive manner.  Once, when trying to describe the feeling during these outbursts to a friend, I explained that it felt like I was like a caged animal with no hope of escape, a feeling of complete powerlessness.

It turns out that this description might be more true than I realized.  It is theorized that anger comes from our base “fight or flight” instinct that we share with almost all animals. 

The past couple of weeks, I found myself in a dark place mentally.  It came on rather suddenly, and there were a lot of factors involved.  It actually took me about a week or so to start to realize what some of those factors were.  There were a few different ones, but one I want to mention here is that feeling of powerlessness.

This was last week when I started to come to that realization, and part of the feeling was frustration with what I saw online and in the news: the conspiracy theories and protests against the stay-at-home orders and, what I felt, was a callous disregard for and outright hostility towards public servants who were trying to do their best in an almost impossible situation.  I became extremely agitated and angry at those people, and worse, I felt incredibly powerless.  I have no real platform, there is pretty much nothing I can do to reach these people and reason with them.  At one point, the futility of the situation boiled over and I threw my phone across the room. (The phone case was a wise investment…)

Not long after that moment, I came to another realization.  Many of those people are likely dealing with those same feelings of powerlessness.   One of the things that attracts people to conspiracy theories is that they offer the illusion of control in a chaotic world; and if you “broke” the secret code, you have an element of power now.  The feeling of anger and powerlessness at being told to stay home by politicians and having your normal life completely upended leads one to want to take back some of the control.  So you throw your AR-15 over your shoulder and force your way into the state capital as a demonstration of power.

However, just like my throwing my phone across the room, those actions do nothing to improve the situation, and instead just make things worse.

Ironically though, the same basic frustration with feeling powerless that led to my tantrum while reading about those conspiracy theories and armed demonstrations is likely the same frustration that lead those people to conspiracy theories and armed demonstrations in the first place.  When I realized that, it calmed me down and gave me a better perspective and understanding.

I was already thinking about doing a blog post on this, and linking it to the fact that May is Mental Health Month.  Then George Floyd was killed and the resulting protests and eventual riots occurred.

The feeling of powerlessness I feel when I lash out at inanimate objects or that the lock-down protesters feel is absolutely insignificant when compared to the level of powerlessness the black community feels in America.  The feeling that an entire society regards you and your kind as less important, as expendable.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to be black and face the culture and system that they face.  I’m not going to go into those details here, because that’s not the point of this post. This is about the powerful rage that comes out of feelings of powerlessness.

When I feel powerless and angry about the myriad of things in my life, I have nothing specific to direct my anger at so I hit walls.

When the lockdown protesters feel powerless and angry about the government responses to COVID-19, they direct their anger and rage at the government officials.

When an entire race of people have consistently had their power taken from them by a society throughout centuries of history, they are going to direct their anger and fury at that society as a whole.

Now to be clear, this is not to justify or condone any of these activities.  My punching walls is wrong and counterproductive.  Promoting conspiracy theories is wrong and counterproductive.  Armed demonstrations to intimidate lawmakers is wrong and counterproductive.  And rioting is wrong and counterproductive.  Those are simple facts.

It is easy to stand back and judge others for such actions, but that does little to help. We need to try to better understand each other and help each other so we can improve society and avoid the situations that eventually manifest in destructive actions.  Because these destructive actions come out of a basic feeling .… a frustrating sense of powerlessness.

Mental Health Side Note:

As I mentioned, this realization came out of a depressive state I’ve been in the past few weeks.  Recently, I started binge watching the Sopranos, as I hadn’t seen it before.  During one scene with a psychiatrist, there was a line that resonated well:

Depression is rage turned inward.

I found that extremely insightful.  It turns out there is some merit to that as well.  These feelings of rage and depression and powerlessness are all things that need to be addressed due to their impact on mental health.

May is mental health awareness month, and as I’ve written before, I’ve had my own struggles.  During this difficult time in our society, mental health issues are becoming even more pressing.  We need to find ways to cope and be willing to accept that such difficulties are normal.

It’s OK to have those feelings.  You just need to find constructive ways of dealing with them.  Including self-reflection, talking to people, therapy and medication if necessary, these are all OK.

Remember to help fight the stigma.

Mental Health Links:

https://www.mentalhealth.gov/

https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Month

Planning a Trip Around the World – Part 2 – What to Bring

Here’s the second of my three anticipated posts on planning a trip around the world.  The first post was about the initial planning stages and the long-lead items you need to get ready.

These are the items that I think you should plan on bringing with you.  I spent the two months before my trip consistently ordering and returning things on Amazon, (as well including necessary items on my Christmas wish list)

Tech Items

Two Phones: One of the first items you’ll need to take care of is a phone with international service. Like the credit and ATM cards, I recommend having a spare phone in case your primary phone is lost or stolen.  In my case, I had a cheap dual SIM phone as my primary phone.  I had a KnowRoaming global sim card in one of the slots.  This was my regular and consistent phone number.  It would be the one I used when I was in a country for a short while, or when first arriving in a new country. This was the number I used for my WhatsApp account on that phone, and was therefore my regular contact info throughout my journey.  If I was in a country for a few weeks or more, I would usually get a local SIM card for the other slot.  Then I could use it to make calls if necessary, but more often it was more for data.  These rates would be much cheaper than KnowRoaming, but I would use the data for my WhatsApp with the KnowRoaming number.  In addition to this phone, I had my old US phone unlocked and had an additional KnowRoaming card in it.  This was for emergencies, which did happen, when I was pickpocketed in Bogota.  Having the spare phone made things much easier, especially since it happened the day before I was going to the coast for two weeks.

Currently, my primary phone is a Google Fi phone, which while there are some annoyances about the service, the cost and data plans are great, and it works in almost any country at almost the same cost as in the US.  After my world trip, when I went to Mexico, I had my Google Fi as my primary phone and the old dual-sim phone with the KnowRoaming card as my backup.

Important note: make sure you set up automatic cloud backup on your phone for pictures and video.  I started to set mine up one day and didn’t finish.  Then, when my phone was stolen, I lost many of the pictures from my first few months in Colombia as well as almost all of the pictures and video I had from my trip to Brazil for Carnival.

Hybrid Tablet/Laptop: For my trip I had a Microsoft Surface 3 (not the larger Pro model).  This was perfect.  It had enough power for me to do normal work with the type cover, was good for streaming movies, worked as an e-reader with the Kindle app., and it was small and light enough for me to bring on day trips occasionally. For long-term travel a regular tablet will likely be too small and not able to perform some tasks you need (especially if you’re trying to do any work) and a full laptop will likely be large and heavy when trying to travel.  A hybrid tablet/laptop is the Goldilocks.

Other tech items:

  • This Anker small power bank was great to have in my pocket when out on a day trip or out for the night in case my batter ran low. You don’t want to be out at 3 AM in a strange city with a dead phone.
  • I also brought a portable solar cell and a solar cell power bank. I used them a couple of times, mostly on long (>16 hour) bus rides where there was nowhere to plug in my phone.  So these types of items can be useful, but it really depends on your particular situation.  Now I would probably look at this combination instead.
  • This outlet adapter was extremely useful and light
  • Have two charging cables for your phone
  • Active noise cancelling ear buds. The over the ear variety are obviously much better but can be bulky.  Ear buds with noise cancelling technology do a good enough job on an airplane when you’re trying to watch a movie or listen to music or a podcast, and they take up much less space and weight.

Important apps:

  • Google translate (download any languages you might need in case you don’t have internet when you need it)
  • Google maps or maps.me so you can download local maps (again if you don’t have internet)
  • WhatsApp – the most common messaging app outside of the USA
  • FB/IG/SC – whatever social media you prefer
  • Party or social game apps – I’d often play games like “Heads Up” with fellow travelers on a bus

 

Non-tech Items

  • Hybrid backpack: A lot of travel blogs do not like hybrid backpacks (ones that can be used as rolling luggage) due to the added weight. I can not imagine my journey without this amazing hybrid backpack from Osprey.  Yes, a regular backpack of the same size would have been a little lighter and have a little more room.  However, I had done the standard backpack through Europe for a few weeks previously and it was such a pain to carry and get off and on.  Being able to just roll this behind me at the dozens of airports I travelled through and down city streets made life so much easier.   And similarly, a standard rolling suitcase would not have been feasible in certain situations.  Many hybrid backpacks are really just suitcases with some straps attached to them.  But the Osprey model I had was a true backpack with a supportive hip belt and solid construction.  It is a little expensive, but worth it.
  • Water filter – I actually had two filters, but I never used the LED UV one. Instead, this compact model was all I needed.
  • This collapsible water bottle can be a little bit of a pain to clean, and it can be punctured. But the fact that it can easily be folded and stored, as well as has a clip in its design made it a great asset.
  • This is one of those items that you likely won’t use but you’ll be glad if you have it: a thin sleeping bag liner for those times you find yourself in some bedding you’re just not too sure about
  • I forgot to bring my field glasses, and wish I had, especially when I was whale watching or on safari in Africa. A small pair would not have taken up much space and weight at all.
  • These detergent sheets are amazing. You can use them with regular laundry machines or if you have to do sink laundry.  Additionally, have some dryer sheets in a Ziploc bag.  They help to keep your bag from getting too funky.
  • A quick dry travel towel is also a great thing to have whether for the beach or when you’re staying in a hostel that doesn’t have towels available
  • Some other items that don’t need much explanation
    • Head lamp (better than just a regular flashlight)
    • Waterproof covers for your backpack
    • Thin rope or accessory cord (can be used for a variety of things)
    • Buckle strap wedding (multiple uses, even as a impromptu seatbelt if needed)
    • Travel first aid kit
    • Ear plugs
    • Day bag or smaller backpack
    • Travel duct tape
    • Travel sewing kit
    • Mesh laundry bag
    • Bandana(s)
    • Deck of card
    • Pens & notepad
    • Carabiners
    • Travel locks
    • Strap for your sunglasses
    • Your standard toiletries

Clothing

There are many theories on clothing.  Much of it depends on what you will be doing and how long you will be staying in an area.  In my case, since I was travelling to a variety of climates and doing a variety of activities, I needed to have a rather versatile wardrobe.  The key to this for me was layers.  This was my travel clothing list, it will obviously be different for your particular needs.  Also, function over fashion should be your priority here.

  • 5 each of underwear, socks, t-shirts. These were all travel material (merino wool, or bamboo, or synthetic) to help with quick and easy cleaning and also to avoid smelling bad if I had to repeat wear them a second time between laundry days
  • Convertible hiking/travel pants– Not very fashionable, but very useful.  Preferably a khaki color to avoid showing dirt
  • Swim shorts that can easily be used as regular walking around shorts
  • Light athletic shorts for sleeping, lounging, laundry day, etc
  • A second set of “nicer” travel pants (really only for going out or when the other pants are dirty.  Great if you can find wrinkle-free ones)
  • Button down travel shirt
  • A pullover or fleece
  • Base layers (long underwear) if you will be going to a colder climate. Tops and bottoms.  I had a thin layer and a thick layer.  They packed nicely, and then I even could double up when necessary.  The tops were also good enough to wear as regular shirts on occasion.
  • A compressible down jacket
  • A waterproof outer shell jacket (a parka is also a good added layer of protection)
  • Hat(s) – something for the sun and something for the cold
  • Thin base layer type gloves. (If you are in a truly winter environment, you can buy thicker gloves when you need them)
  • Trail shoes – I found these to be extremely versatile. They are light/athletic enough that I could use them for running.   They are sturdy enough for hiking.  They have are not obviously sporty, so you can wear them out.
  • Athletic sandals. While they are not stylish (shout out to Jen), athletic sandals like these Tevas are also versatile footwear.  They can be used as casual sandals; and are also good for light hikes and water activities like rafting.  Also, if you happen to ever be off the coast of Antarctica, you might happen to see a penguin using one as a surfboard after an unfortunate loss during a polar plunge….

 

That pretty much constitutes everything I carried with me.  I was able to get all of these items into my wheeled 45 Liter backpack and my 15 Liter day pack.  And (as long as weight wasn’t an issue) I would be able to carry them both on to flights.  I even had plenty of room to pick up mementos throughout the trip and carry them along the way.

My third installment will discuss some of what to expect during your journey, especially from a mental, physical, and emotional standpoint.

An Epidemic of Arrogance

Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18

Arrogance is habitual to the ignorant – Persian Proverb

The past few weeks have brought ever more into relief a concern I’ve had for a long while now: a general rise in arrogance among people.  I’m fortunate enough to have friends from different backgrounds and ideologies, so it is interesting to compare and contrast viewpoints.  An unfortunate common trait they all seem to share is an increasing air of superiority that seems to be even more on display via social media.

Something I hate to see on Facebook is when people share stories or articles that claim some advantage or benefit of liberal vs conservative; secular vs religious; urban vs rural; etc.  Some examples would be articles about how much better of a work ethic farm kids have or others about studies that show secular children are kinder than religious children.  I must point out that I am NOT discussing or advocating the validity of these or other similar stories.  To be fair, one is an obvious opinion piece and the study behind the other has been called into question.

Rather, what I want to point out is the underlying reason we share these types of stories.  Do you think that it is urban parents sharing the “work ethic in farm kids” stories to discuss how they can adapt their parenting to improve their children’s work ethic?  Are religious parents sharing the “secular kids are more generous” stories to ask themselves hard questions about what might be going wrong?

Of course not.

Farm parents are sharing the “better work ethic in farm kids” stories and secular parents are sharing the “more generosity in secular kids” stories.  And they are doing it for the exact same reason:

“We’re better than those other people and here’s the proof.”

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have a sense of pride in yourself and your background.  I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up on a farm, and if I end up having children of my own, I want to pass along that experience.  I also feel both my personal and religious growth benefited by stepping away and taking a more secular view for a while.  However, while I love both of those aspects of my life, none of that makes me any better than anyone else.  I’m no better than someone that grew up in the city or someone that has always stayed with their childhood faith.   The only person I should worry about being better than is my past-self.

And my past-self was a prime example of arrogance.  Academically, I was the proverbial big fish in a small pond.  I thought I knew everything.  I promptly received a rude awakening upon arriving at college, and have continuously received those awakenings throughout my life.

I’ve been privileged to have met many incredibly talented and intelligent people over the years.  People that are true geniuses, without exaggeration.  And I’ve had my preconceived notions and self-importance humbled again and again.  The more I’ve learned, the less I know.

Last month, I read Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.  What struck me, that we don’t learn in school, was how much George Washington failed in his early military career, long before the American Revolution.  A common theme in these early failures was a belief that he knew better than others with more experience and more perspective.  Luckily, he learned from those humbling experiences, and used them to his advantage during the Revolutionary War.

A couple of months ago, I wrote in a blog post that the wisdom of Socrates was not in his knowledge, but in his realization and acceptance of his ignorance.  I also mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who often have little skill or knowledge in an area have an incredibly high level of confidence in that area.

Unfortunately, we are seeing so much of that effect now.  People are claiming to know more about subjects than actual experts.  The level of arrogance that entails is astounding.   Whatever your profession is, I assume that you are good at it and that you have dedicated many years and much of your life to it.  Now imagine someone comes along with no prior experience in your field and tells you that they have read up on it over the past few weeks and that you are wrong or corrupt.  What would you think of that person?

In a slightly flipped scenario, what about that typical mid-level manager or trainer that you might have had at some point in your life.  They know more than you did at the beginning, but it was obvious they didn’t know everything.  Yet they continued to lord their slight advantage in experience over you and act superior.  And you see them do it to other people.  What do you think of people like that?

This arrogance is all around us, and I freely admit that I fall into it myself on occasion.  No matter the subject area, we need to remember a little bit of humility.  Whether we are discussing a pandemic, or religion, or politics, or something at work, we need to operate under the assumption that we might be wrong.  Instead of actively seeking out information that confirms our preexisting views, we need to question our preexisting views and attempt to see what others see.

We should not try to prove ourselves right, we should try to move ourselves to what is right.