On the importance of meaning and purpose in my life…

Saturday afternoon I went through a short and yet intense moment of experiencing the sense of loss over a past relationship, contemplating what exactly it was this relationship represents, and why it seemingly meant and still means so much to me. An intriguing possibility occurred to me, one I hadn’t really thought of before as clearly, but that at least at the moment seems to be fairly plausible: When I initially developed feelings for this person, I distinctly remember having a fresh sense of “this is what I want and need”, something that has been diminishing for quite a while. However, my subsequent decisions and the outcomes I observed didn’t make sense to me. So, what I have been and partly still am attracted to and obsessed about may be the idea that this relationship could give my life meaning and purpose, together with the enhanced experiences of agency and self-efficacy. And I want to flesh out each term a bit more.

My experience of agency, which, briefly put, is perceiving that actions I’m taking are self-determined, allowing me to actually take charge of my life. A typical example from psychology is that by making a decision I can bring about a specific outcome, and I would argue that spending time with someone I feel close and attracted to, interacting with that person, and observing the feedback I’m getting clearly constitutes a situation with a heightened sense of agency.

Closely related but not identical is the concept of self-efficacy. While agency can be experienced in good and bad outcomes alike–as long as it has been my actions that bring the outcome about–self-efficacy is specifically linked to positive outcomes that are congruent with my goals. As such, being with someone and observing that person’s increased sense of well-being as a direct consequence of my actions creates a higher sense of self-efficacy.

The experience of meaning or meaningful outcomes–and I think it is important to distinguish meaning from the other concepts–is something I can more or less attribute to a situation. To some degree, it is both guided by and subsequently guides future goals I have in life. As an example, even an initially negative experience I make, such as the person I feel for not returning those feelings, can be seen as meaningful if I end up with a thought that, one way or another, this experience helped me in reaching one of my goals. As such, it is highly independent from agency, as even outcomes that are seemingly caused by others or maybe even random events can be perceived as meaningful.

Semantically overlapping with the concept of meaning, I would yet separately name my sense of purpose. I would argue this sense is an expression of how I translate my appreciation of life as a whole into what I intend to do for seeking meaningful experiences. In short, it is the one highest-level goal I have in life. Obviously I can’t look into the future, but I guess that if I could, a very good reason would probably be that I’d want to verify that I will reach this high-level goal. In that sense it is like the hypothesis and synthesis of future meaning, and whenever I manage to move closer toward this goal I’m experiencing an increased sense of meaning. And for me, being with someone in an intimate way is clearly part of the purpose and meaningful.

Finally, I would add the experience of things making sense. And I think it is important to also distinguish this from both meaning and purpose. In a situation where I made a mistake and incur some form of punishment or cost, the painful part of the experience at least makes sense–which is different from a situation where I experience pain without understanding why it happened. I would say that my implicit belief in cause and effect has very little room for randomness, and I often have a fairly strong need to understand what exactly caused the things happening to me, particularly the painful ones, which is why in a situation where outcomes do not make sense they at least must be meaningful to be bearable.

More generally speaking and related to what I see as the preliminary thoughts on a neuro-computational model for human experience as a whole, I would argue that once the more basic needs we experience as human beings are satisfied–those that guarantee our physical well-being and survival–we are left with the challenge to look after those still requiring satisfaction, which I speculate could be one of the reasons why people in positions of great power might at some point become incredibly dissatisfied with part of their experience.

Coming back to my own situation in life: working in the field of psychology, albeit not as an academic in the strictest sense, has always been a continuous source of meaning. The way in which I came to the job, however, did not entail the experience of agency and purpose, at least I would argue that how I ended up working in this field came about more as a coincidence. And I somehow sense that a slow but noticeable decline in perceived meaning may very well have contributed to the intensity with which I have attached myself to the idea of finding meaning elsewhere, say in this relationship turned to obsession.

Consequently, I am now wondering to what extent my sense of loss is, to a considerable degree at least, the expression of the needs for meaning and purpose, and that if I were to find those two by other means, especially if I were to experience them with agency and self-efficacy, the sense of loss would be highly diminished. Naturally, it seems tempting to simply go for another relationship–that would afford me with a renewed sense of “that’s what I want and need.” However, I have to ask myself how stable this experience would really be, given that I have witnessed how easy it can also break apart…

Finding my way home…

For me, it was a strange sensation when I realized on my way to Zurich airport that I might be stranded at a place where I had never been before: the somewhat unwelcoming possibility of not “getting home” after a long journey mingled with the exciting possibility of exploring some location that must certainly hold at least a few discoveries to be made. But I’m jumping ahead already… Uhm, given that this will be a recounting of personal experiences, I hope you won’t be bothered too much if I overshoot my usual length limit of about 1,000 words per entry.

As I explained in the overview, I was traveling on a buddy pass, which meant that my flight would only work out under the condition that enough empty seats remained available at the time of boarding. Needless to say, on my desired return date, Monday the 24th of June, this didn’t work out–indeed, next to myself, 11 other people didn’t make it. And the gate crew told all of us that the situation would only get worse in the upcoming few days, as, besides whoever of us would try again, there would be additional “buddies”, trying to fly out from Frankfurt to JFK, probably until the weekend. Bummer!

Not yet knowing what plan B would going to be like, the feeling sank in that I was temporarily stranded, and I felt immensely grateful that my stepmom had suggested, even insisted, that she and my dad would remain close at hand, “just in case.” So, I took my checked bag from the belt again and, exiting through border and customs control with a feeling of this whole experience being some sort of a bad joke, rejoined them shortly afterwards.

Upon my inquiry at the Delta ticket counter as to what other options might be available to return to New York the next day, I was told that flights with some more empty seats available would go out of Amsterdam and Brussels via Detroit and also one from Zurich directly to JFK. The number of empty seats was greatest for the Zurich option, and with a strong desire not to repeat the experience of rising excitement at the gate followed by a complete anticlimax upon realizing I wouldn’t be flying, I opted to go to Switzerland.

This flight was scheduled for 10:30am and I suddenly became aware that if I went to my brother Bernd’s place, I would yet get to see my six-week old nephew Vincent, and I must admit I felt a great sense of joy. Fate had seemingly dealt me a blow, but one that would allow me to actually experience something I had wanted very much, not gotten the chance to, and then being given the opportunity after all. Planing ahead, I found out that a train leaving my brother Bernd’s place at 8:30pm, with a 4-hour layover at the station at Frankfurt airport, would bring me to Zurich nicely at 8am the next day. So much for the plan…

After the decision was made, my dad dropped me off at my brother’s place, and I enjoyed three and half hours of nephew awesomeness. Holding Vincent in my arms, rocking him gently back and forth–I have a video that Bernd took, which easily brings tears into my eyes–was a wonderful and quite deep experience. Finally I could grasp the reality of being “Uncle Joey”. Bernd, Daniela, and I had a small dinner together, and then I was dropped off at the train station with a feeling that this one-day delay had all been worth it!

The short ride to the train station at Frankfurt airport was uneventful, and after realizing that almost all of the little shops, cafés, and facilities inside the train station were closed after 10pm, I decided to wait at the arrivals hall inside the airport terminal instead, which brought about the actually adventurous part of my journey. I had taken a seat at a little counter for travelers needing to charge some piece of electronic equipment, and after calling my mom to say good night, I began to read one of the books I had bought at the high school reunion.

A few minutes later, a woman approached me and another fellow traveler sitting next to me, inquiring about an issue she was encountering with the WiFi connection on her cell phone. As it turned out, she had used up the 30 minutes of complimentary Internet service, and my suggestion was that she could use any other device she carried, such as a laptop. Normally, I might have simply gone back to reading my book, but my somewhat heightened sense of care and supportiveness brought my attention back to her every once in a while, and so I realized that she was stranded herself, trying hard to find a resolution to her predicament.

After a while, I decided to “make contact”, and I inquired about what exactly happened to her. She explained that she was on her way back home to Geneva, and that she had arrived from Kathmandu, but missed her connecting flight due to a series of unfortunate events–which would be too much to be told here as well… Long story short, she needed to find a way to rebook her flight to the next possible one: her son’s high school graduation ceremony was set to take place at 2pm the next day, and if at all possible she wanted to be there on time.

As it happened, I had opted for a flat-rate tariff on my German SIM card, and so I decided to let her make use of the air time by offering her to use my cell phone to make a few phone calls and inquire about the possibility for rebooking the flight. Unfortunately, after a series of calls to her traveling agency, her husband, and then to the Lufthansa service line in the US, it turned out that the only way to rebook her ticket was to wait at the terminal until the counters would open the next morning. And one of the phone calls I had even made myself, as Sharad–I was pleased to make the acquaintance of–was trying to get some more information from her husband via Internet based text chat.

By that point I had figured out that my train would be another option for her to get home, with her needing to transfer at Basel to Geneva, and me transferring at the same station to a train going to Zurich airport. And when I made the suggestion, Sharad seemed actually excited, but what about the luggage? That hadn’t been released to her, given that she had been checked in on her connecting flight.

So, during a longer phone call she made, I took it upon myself to inquire with a guy from the information desk–to the utter astonishment of Sharad, as I left her with my cell phone–and together we managed to convince the people from the Lufthansa baggage service personnel that her suitcase would be sent to Geneva airport the next morning even though she had missed her flight. After Sharad heard the news, and actually confirming the arrangements in person, we left the airport together, bought a train ticket to Geneva, and then had about 30 minutes left at the train station before our journey together was to begin.

It was a funny moment when, in the middle of a conversation we had started about my work at Columbia, Sharad suddenly inquired about my name, realizing we had been working so intently on finding a way for her to reach home early the next day without ever formally introducing ourselves. And from that moment on, I somehow felt that I had made a good friend. The train arrived with about 20 minutes delay–Deutsche Bahn not living up to its reputation but very much fulfilling the by now quite often encountered stereotype. After we located our car, which had a series of reclining resting chairs, I inquired whether I could change seats so Sharad and I could travel together, and then a quite long and interesting conversation ensued, both about her work and two-week trip to Nepal and my current interest in emotion and motivation and their relevance for communication and relationships.

At some point a fellow traveler reminded us of the time, and we decided to try to take a little nap. It was around 4:40am when I realized something wasn’t going according to plan: the train wasn’t moving any longer. We had stopped at a train station some time earlier to receive additional cars from a train coming from Berlin, and when I asked the conductor, I was told that this train had a one-hour delay due to a storm, and I began to have a first small “pinch” of the feeling I might not make it to my flight. After returning to my seat, I found I had woken Sharad and I told her about the delay. Knowing that her husband might be a little worried about her impromptu decision to take the train, she sent him a text message from my phone, and then we waited. But this wouldn’t be the only delay…

After only another half hour or so of moving, we stopped again at a train station where we weren’t even supposed to. As it turned out, our train itself was facing a technical malfunction, and the engine needed to be replaced, which took close to an hour and a half, by which time I was certain that my flight would be taking off without me. Luckily, the lady at the Delta counter had given me her direct number at the ticketing desk, and so, shortly after 6:30am, I was able to reach her and rebook my flight to Wednesday. And that was when I learned just how much of a friend I had made during the past few hours…

As I was telling Sharad about my plans to go to Zurich and stay at a hotel, she simply suggested I could join her and her family at the high school graduation in Geneva and then make my way to Zurich from there. At first, this seemed like too much of a detour–the train ride from Geneva to Zurich would be another three hours, but the prospect of spending more time with a new found and already very feeling-close-to friend was indeed much more appealing than the idea of ending up in a city where I wouldn’t know anyone. So, at the train station in Basel, while I was rebooking my train ticket from Zurich to Geneva, Sharad bought some food for the remaining train ride, and we had yet some more wonderful exchange of thoughts, all the while some very stunning landscapes passed by–not all of which I was giving their deserved attention, as I was still much more interested in hearing about her experiences in Nepal and relating some of her work with what I am interested in.

By now my German SIM card had become useless, and I managed to ask a couple of travelers in probably very funny sounding French whether we could briefly use their iPhone for a quick call to Sharad’s husband, Satya, who would then know about the time of our arrival. And so we made it to Geneva with about two and a half hours of delay–at least relative to the original arrival time my friend would have gotten there. We then took the tram to the western outskirts of the small but fairly cozy city at the lake, and arrived at Sharad and Satya’s place just in time for a brief but most delicious lunch that he had prepared for us and then each of us took quick shower and changed into fresh clothes so we could attend the graduation ceremony of their son Eklavya’s “in style”.

This event would deserve its own little story, but suffice it to say it was almost as extravagant as some of the ceremonies I’ve witnessed in the US; quite more so than what I remember of my own Abiturfeier. After the official part with a few speeches–as I learned that day, my French is still good enough to follow a lot of what’s going on–, some live music presented by some students, a video collage showing the quite eventful past year, and the final handing over of the actual diplomas and special awards, there was a small reception. I only took one or two small snacks, having been well fed by the food Sharad had gotten at Basel as well as Satya’s superb cooking, and then decided to play a bit on the piano, and what a well-tuned instrument that was (I wish I had one of those…).

Next, we went back to Sharad and Satya’s place where I was given the chance to rest a little. And then I was asked to join a small dinner celebration in honor of the graduate, which gave me the first real opportunity to also connect with Satya and Eklavya. Satya told me a bit about his work and I heard about Eklavya’s plans which university and program to go for. Our conversation then became much more broad, such that we discussed what career options would be most likely to lead to a fulfilling work experience, and it was then that I once again realized how much I had liked the idea of being a teacher, helping others finding “their way”, but that the reality of how school-based education is organized in many places, focusing on and pointing out failures rather than allowing people to naturally learn from any mistakes they make, I had decided to take a different route altogether.

When it was time for me to go back to the train station, Satya then suggested that given the flexibility of my flight ticket, I could just as much stay over night, have a decent rest, and enjoy another day in Geneva. Initially I felt that would be stretching my good fortunes, but then again I also wanted to experience more of the wonderful new friendships I had found. And so I decided to ask my friend working at Delta to rebook the flight–once more! Seriously, I hope he will not tell a completely different story about my travels, saying that I have been such a pain in the butt, that he will never ever talk to me again.

The rest of the evening then was a most pleasant affair, sitting on the sofa in a living room with a veranda, sipping away on a cup of green tea, followed by another hour of talking to Satya about some of the more practical issues he was encountering at work. And then, finally, I went to bed after not sleeping properly for more than 36 hours. I’m still surprised at how refreshed I felt the next morning, and after taking a shower and having some breakfast I was eager to see Geneva. Satya had just called Sharad, asking her to drop off a sweater, as the weather had turned out to be rather “nippy” (chilly) and then we took the tram back to the city.

Since we were talking so vividly on our way, it was no wonder we ended up missing our transfer stop and so we decided to walk from the tram all the way first to the U.N. Palais and then, a little further, to the W.H.O. building where we would meet Satya for an early lunch and a tour of the building. The cafeteria there offered some excellent salad options, and the rooftop view simply is gorgeous. On our way through the building we ended up running into several people who knew Sharad–she also had worked for the W.H.O. before.

It was about 1:30pm when we left to make our way down to the lake. From there we took a nice stroll towards the old town of Geneva, where we had a wonderful snack: sharing two crêpes, one savory with gruyère and ham, and one sweet with banana and chocolate spread, and a coffee. Well, that is, Sharad had an iced coffee and I got myself a scoop of pamplemousse (sweet grapefruit) ice cream. It was one of the funniest moments of the day when then two ladies behind the counter started laughing out loud after I tried to explain that the iced coffee was not to be made by adding the pamplemousse flavor–something certainly made more hilarious by the fact that my French speaking capabilities are fairly limited…

Given that stores in Geneva usually all close at 7pm, we then decided to stroll a bit through the “downtown” area, window shopping. We also got my train ticket for the next morning, and then went on finding our way to the cathedral in the center of the old town that offers a most stunning and panoramic view over the lake and the surrounding parts of the city. Before returning home, we still took the chance to look at some of the sights close by, including the famous “reformation wall”, and, right next to it, an end-of-school-term fair that was going on, where kids were wearing all sorts of hand-made hats, which made everything look even more like a fairy tale…

The only thing we didn’t manage was doing the groceries shopping for dinner, but Satya was way ahead of us! When we arrived, a most delicious assortment of food options was already in the making: Indian style chicken, with home made rotis, and some spinach with cheese and the typical yoghurt to help a bit if things are too spicy. After dinner, we sat with a glass of Kir, and then Sharad, Satya, and I spent about an hour or so talking about the fundamental differences between European, American, and Indian culture. Another feast, this time for the soul and mind!

And now my story is turning to an end (at last!!). The next morning I had to wake up at 3:30am, as my train would leave from Geneva main station at 4:50, and I had to take a cab there, which Satya had ordered to be at their place by 4:20. Once in the train, the trip to Zurich turned out to work like a charm, just as Sharad had predicted and Satya commented on: Swiss trains are always on time, even so much so that if you think they’re late you may as well check if your watch isn’t ahead of time!

During the entire remainder of my journey, while riding the train to Zurich, flying to JFK, and then sitting in the subway on the way to my apartment, I had this constant feeling of awe and bubbly fizziness that signifies that something most unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable had happened to me: out of the blue, I had made first one, then two wonderful friends, I had been welcomed into their home and had shared some incredibly valuable moments with them, and I believe that in the upcoming months and hopefully even years, I will “come back” not only to this memory, but also to this friendship with more opportunities to share meaningful experiences with Sharad, Satya, and also Eklu… Thank you so much for giving me all these precious moments with you!

June 2013 travel report — overview

While I realize that this website is by design a philosophical blog, I equally want to share some private experiences with those of you who are interested in hearing about my life as it is–rather than about what I think about life in general. So, I hope you’ll enjoy what I intend to become a short series of report blog entries giving you a chance to take a glimpse into what happened to me while traveling to Germany and, eventually and unexpectedly, to Switzerland on my family visiting vacation time in June 2013.

First, I feel the need to mention that the ticket I got was not a regular ticket but what is known as a Delta Airlines Buddy Pass. Briefly put, staff members of Delta Airlines have the opportunity to extend the perk of a “non-revenue” flight to family members and close friends. This then means, naturally, that air travel becomes much more affordable, but if you think there is no catch, well, there are a few–some or maybe even all of which I experienced. The major one maybe being that while you can make a flight reservation, a seat assignment will be given “at the gate”. And paying customers as well as buddies with higher priorities will be given seats preferentially, such that there is always the chance that you won’t actually get the flight you intend but that you have to come back to the airport for a flight at a later date with more empty seats or accept a different route altogether.

Still, with ticket prices for a round trip to Germany–JFK/Frankfurt/JFK to be precise–soaring beyond my financial means, I very gladly accepted this risk, and in the end it turned out to be the source of quite a few extra adventures you’ll get to read about. I would go as far as saying that without those, the travel report might turn out to be relatively boring and commonplace, so maybe sometimes it’s worth being inconvenienced for the sake of being disturbed in one’s routine to make some new and unexpected experiences. Naturally, I believe for that to succeed it is necessary to be open towards those situations. Imagining that I would have been angry or resentful about not making my return flight of choice, the subsequent events would certainly have played out differently…

OK, getting to the chase: I was staying in touch with my Delta Airlines friend to find and confirm a possible date to fly out, and on June 11 it finally became apparent that I should be able to make it for the flight on Thursday the 13th. It’s an overnight flight that arrives in Frankfurt on the morning of the next day. And given my vacation allowance, I decided to aim for the return flight on the 24th, which would give me ten full days of vacation and family time. So much for the plan! The flight from JFK to Germany worked out, although barely as I now believe, but the flight back was just a bit of a utopian idea, but more on that later.

Here is now, in as brief as possible terms, what happened throughout my trip as a kind of ticker list of news headlines and short summaries:

  • June 12, 2013, High Price by Dr. Carl Hart: while maybe not directly related to my vacation plans, I think it’s important to mention my getting and reading this book; it helped me by providing some more thoughts and ideas about why people do the things they do
  • June 13, 2013, my flight to Germany: barely (it seems) making my flight, but having a very long and totally awesome conversation with a stranger, Michael, who turns out to be an architect from New York also teaching at Columbia University
  • June 14, 2013, luggage delayed at JFK: not knowing all the conditions of Buddy Pass traveling I assumed I can check my bags and get them; turns out there is always a (pretty good) chance of that not happening and checked bags being delayed… So, if you’ll be flying as a Buddy, use hand luggage only! 😉
  • June 14, 2013, train trip to Koblenz: as I already knew that I would need some Euros, I had exchanged a bit of money and was able to get a train to Koblenz where I was picked up by a neighbor of my mom’s (who no longer has a car), and this and the next day were spent with “chilling out” in the beautiful and extremely sleepy Eifel and having a few really good conversations with my mom
  • June 16, 2013, picking up my bag: finally getting the information that my bag had arrived, my mom and I went to Frankfurt airport (yes, Buddies will not have their bags delivered!) followed by a very nice afternoon in Koblenz’s old town and a visit at the “Deutsches Eck” where Rhine and Mosel join; in the evening I met with some old friends which felt like a nice forecast for my high school reunion a week later
  • June 18, 2013, my brother Bernd comes for a quick visit: although one of the main reasons for my trip to Germany being to get to see my still fairly new-born nephew Vincent, I hadn’t gotten the chance yet; still my brother Bernd decided to visit my mom and me to “hang out” and have a little bit of good-old-times fun
  • June 19 and 20, 2013, staying at my dad’s: given that my parents are divorced there is always some scheduling required to see both my mom and dad; this time I decided to stay with him during “the middle” of my vacation with a sleep-over, and I had some very, very good conversations with my dad and his wife about emotions, needs, decisions, and why we as humans often seem to be too entrenched in our immediate thoughts, judgments, and subsequent emotional responses, leading us to easily miss the best opportunities in life
  • June 21, 2013, my oldest brother Markus arrives in town: a family visit would not be complete without seeing both my brothers, and I was and am very grateful and happy that Markus took the time to come to my mom’s place; in part also due to the fact that we both went to the same high school and the reunion was for all years and classes, and as with my dad, I had some good conversations again 🙂
  • June 22, 2013, the high school reunion day: the afternoon finally brought me to one of the two main reasons for my visit: seeing people from my past and, possibly, rekindle some contact; as it turned out, to my knowledge only 4 other students of my year made it, but I still had a totally awesome time at a “literary café” where three former students (not of my year though) read from their own literature works, two of which I bought and have been enjoying quite a bit already since
  • June 23, 2013, NOT seeing my nephew: for those of you who don’t know… My mom’s emotional situation can become fairly volatile at times, and after a night frequently interrupted by loud music playing on the stereo in my mom’s apartment and talking to both my brothers, the decision was made not to go see my nephew; instead I went to visit both my grandmothers’ graves with my mom
  • June 24, 2013, NOT flying back to JFK: initially it might have seemed like really bad luck, first missing out on my nephew then not getting on the flight, but then fate seemed to twist and turn and put me on top again… Had I not been bumped off the flight, I would not have seen my nephew, but after rebooking to fly out from Zurich the next day, I had enough time left to visit my brother Bernd and yet got to meet Vincent, yay!
  • June 24, 2013, late evening, meeting another stranger: now we come to the truly remarkable and exceptional part of the story… On my way from my brother’s place to Zurich the next day, I had to transfer trains at the airport in Frankfurt, and as I had a 4-hour overlay, I decided to wait at the airport terminal rather than the train track; there I made the acquaintance of a very, very lovely lady, Sharad, who was stranded, whom I tried to support in her efforts to rebook the flight she missed, and who ended up taking the same train, with us becoming friends along the way
  • June 25, 2013, NOT flying from Zurich either: looking back it seems as if fate wanted me to stay in Europe–maybe as a sign to miss a special someone’s birthday? Be that as it may, the train first had a one-hour delay while waiting for some cars being added from a different train coming from Berlin, and then another even longer additional delay when a technical malfunction prevented us from moving for another hour; given that I would not make my flight in time, Sharad suggested I join her and her family in Geneva for her son’s high school graduation ceremony
  • June 25 and 26, 2013, Geneva revisited: taking Sharad up on her offer, I ended up spending an incredibly wonderful day and a half with new found friends while also being given a tour around the lake and through the old town of Geneva–reminding me of an early childhood episode–, and, as you may have guessed, having yet more long and very interesting and memorable conversations; the time I got to spend there will hopefully remain as vivid in my mind as it is now! Thank you, Sharad and Satya, for everything!!
  • June 27, 2013, train to Zurich and flight to JFK: at last I was able to make it to an airport in time–though there wasn’t much buffer left–and, for the first time in my life, traveled business class; yet another (though quite small) adventure. Given that the checkin counter and the gates were very far away, I took the risk again of checking my bag, and “paid” for this decision with it being delayed once more…

So much for the overview! Details on some parts of my travels to follow, particularly on this last, unexpected journey 🙂 I hope you did and will enjoy these blog entries, even though they deviate a bit from the usual material.

Why do relationships fail? And how to improve things?

Maybe those sound like trivial questions, but in part fueled by very recent conversations with both my divorced parents, I started to wonder what is at the basis of relationship failure. At this time, I don’t feel very qualified to give a truly comprehensive answer, but I would like to share some of my initial thoughts and encourage you to comment so as to possibly come to a better understanding.

Overall, I see three main categories of reasons: first, a relationship could simply become dysfunctional due to practical reasons. For instance, if two people live close by and a considerable part of the relationship quality is defined by the fact that they regularly meet, it is possible that by one of the people moving to a far away place the relationship would suffer and, at least unless the two people involved find a way to redefine their interaction and also accept this change, it may not survive. The same is true for things occurring within a relationship that are perceived as too disruptive to be tolerated in the long term, such as harmful behavior.

The second big reason in my mind is inefficient communication, which may manifest itself in various forms: two people could be communicating too little (or too much), or simply there are too many misunderstandings. In short, the needs that both people have in a relationship to experience one another and the union as positive through communication are not met. This could be due to differences in needs, such as one person always wanting to know where the other one is whereas the other person having no such need and also having difficulties to represent this need and acting accordingly.

The last and more or less final stage that I think is often the result of either of the other two is the notion that people begin to wonder about and finally doubt the other person’s intentions. It is simply part of human experience that we cannot truly know what goes on in someone else’s mind. We are forced to interpret behavior and communication and form a mental representation of the other person’s intentions. At the beginning of a relationship, and fueled by neurochemical changes, people seem very much able to overlook negative experiences in favor or interpreting someone’s behavior as benevolent. We may feel temporarily hurt by how we perceive someone’s action, but we feel no need to doubt their intentions. However, this mechanism itself may already be at the root of setting up a relationship failure…

Imagine you start feeling attracted to someone. At some point you find out about a potentially detracting quality, such as a habit you personally dislike. While you are in the stage of “being in love” you will in all likelihood accept this information, but after this phase is over and a more “realistic” appraisal sets in, you may at some point misattribute these qualities as being expressed intentionally.

But even more globally, the reason to have a sense of dissociation (and that of a relationship failing) may eventually be characterized by the subjective processes of assessment, interpretation, and judgment that the other person’s intentions, or least part of them, are either not “supportive” (positive) enough or actually even destructive (negative). In that case, a relationship that has once started out as harmonious and mutually beneficial can actually turn into a war–something often enough described in the literature and unfortunately found also in reality: two people who once loved one another begin to fight and are unable to stop, based on the assumption the other person’s intention is to inflict harm and pain, with the only seemingly reasonable option being to strike.

Naturally, there are relationships that enter this stage without the need to ever having been in love. But the underlying mechanism and reason for the parties involved to keep fighting are the same: the conviction that the respective other actually wants to inflict pain. Importantly, while this assumption is made, it is virtually impossible to reduce the intensity of the conflict. Any information being added, by means of direct communication or indirect negotiation via a mediator, is likely being considered as dubious or even intentionally misleading and fraudulent. I somehow believe it is thus first necessary to at least allow for the possibility that the other person doesn’t have harmful intentions, but is acting out of self preservation interests.

For me, personally, there are now a few things I feel are worth learning as a human being when it comes to relationships and conflict resolution:

On the more passive, receptive, and perception-based side of things, I believe it is important to not let immediate, automatic value and intention judgments stand as absolute. If I observe someone’s behavior and more or less automatically attribute an intention that I consider to be harmful, I think it is important to resist the emotional impulse of reacting, and instead allow myself to consider alternative explanations. For instance, if I reach out to someone and that person ignores me, it may be very natural to interpret and prematurely conclude that this person is doing so out of a lack of care or even aggression. However, as soon as I “lock in” on this notion, all subsequent interactions will be guided by my judgments, and in all likelihood I will treat the other person as someone I believe may harm me, which then works as a self-fulfilling prophecy par excellence.

On the more active, communicative, and behavior oriented side, I think it is important to actually tell other people what I perceive, feel, interpret and then give them the chance to correct any misinterpretation. It may initially be fairly difficult–I’ve made that experience myself–but somehow I think it is worth it, given that by being open about my internal state, the chance of being perceived as harmful seems so much lower.

Obviously, this is all work in progress! And comments are most welcome.

The relationship between needs, values, emotions and well-being

To figure out why emotions can be unhelpful at times, I’m currently in the process of building my own model to understand the links between needs, values, emotions, subsequent decision making, and well-being, hoping that understanding these links may help improve my own well-being as well as my interpersonal relationships.

Very briefly put together, my basic assumptions are that I, like everybody else, have a set of idiosyncratic needs (N), which I would classify into three domains–biological, psychological, and cultural or social. Those needs are represented by values (V), and that experiencing these values (including thinking back to or imagining future experiences) or the environment’s response to or challenge of them is one of the main contributors to the experience of emotion (E). Subsequently and mostly unconsciously emotions lead to a change in the trajectory of a person’s interaction with the environment, in short immediately or long-term altered behavior (B), and I would call this effect of emotion motivation (M) towards a goal (G) which is linked to the value. Given the motivational component, a person is then either propelled to unconsciously act according to genetically preprogrammed or habitually learned responses (R), or–if the emotion and motivation become conscious via awareness (A) and particularly if they are represented by language (L)–is able to select and apply a more cognitively appraised, goal-oriented strategy (S) to improve the chance of fulfilling the underlying need. Below, I will give a few more details about some of the highlighted terms, to define them more clearly and set them apart.

In my mind, needs are parameters and conditions that have to be satisfied to maintain proper function of the body, the mind, and social relations. If the needs are satisfied appropriately and in balance with the needs of our environment, including the needs of other people, this will enhance chances of individual as well as species survival and well-being. Importantly, not all needs are equally urgent to be satisfied, and both the passage of time itself as well as interacting with our environment changes the amount to which each need requires satisfying for continued well-being.

To allow behavior to be “in tune” with our needs–that is to say for our brains to figure out what needs we actually have, how urgent each of them is, and what we have to do to satisfy them–those parameters and conditions are represented by values. Unfortunately, these representations are not necessarily always the most helpful ones, but can be biased and distorted or even woefully incorrect. We may for instance greatly value something that actually doesn’t fulfill any need, or we may have no representational value for a critical need, both leading to a potential for long-term dissatisfaction. For example, people may have a high value for recreational drugs and (over-) use them even though the body reacts negatively to their consumption; on the other hand, people may have little value for (or even aversion towards) socializing and human interaction, but if they have this as a psychological need, they will also experience lower well-being. In this context and as far as I understand, I think it’s important to note that economic and neuroeconomic models only represent values, which together build the utility function (U). In other words, economic decision making is not necessarily geared towards need satisfaction, which I would call contentment, but towards increased utility, something I think of more as happiness.

While the value system we have is fairly flexible, I think it’s still worth pointing out values can be either genetically pre-programmed (such as our liking/wanting of sugary foods), learned (such as liking/wanting of receiving money), or inferred, concluded or simply “copied” from people we trust (such as liking/wanting the concept of sexual chastity). Values can be either positive, i.e. sought, desired, and preferentially chosen, or negative, i.e. avoided.

Given that psychological and social needs can be satisfied with a much larger and diverse set of stimuli and contexts, there are probably more possible values than needs. E.g. the need for social approval can be satisfied via others’ liking as well as someone’s submission, respect, etc. And some people seem to prefer being loved, others may prefer being feared or revered. Taken together, one of the most important predictors of well-being would be an accurate, helpful, and environmentally balanced value representation of needs.

At least for some needs we have a direct emotional response in case a lack in its satisfaction is registered, either consciously and/or non-consciously. And certain responses seem to be typically associated with emotional states that are triggered to generate motivation directly towards fulfilling the need or countering a threat for satisfying the need in the future. For some biological needs, emotional responses are fairly clear, such as feeling tired when we need sleep, thirsty when we need water, or hungry when we need nutrition. And a severe lack may result in higher aggression potentials, given the urgency and severity of the condition.

For psychological and social needs and their values, it is in fact much more complicated to understand typical emotional responses, given that the way in which they are elicited and expressed seems to depend on (among other factors) whether

  • a positive value is experienced (e.g. liking and pleasure)
  • a positive value could be experienced in the future (e.g. wanting/craving)
  • a negative value is experienced
  • a negative value could be experienced in the future
  • a (positive) value is threatened by the environment
  • a (positive) value is threatened by an intentional agent (other person)
  • actions of the person him- or herself make it more or less likely to experience a value
  • actions of someone else make it more or less likely to experience a value
  • whether these actions were intentional, out of neglect, or out of ignorance

Obviously, this is merely the beginning of creating a model. Once I get a little further along with it, I would like to be able to make more accurate predictions about which emotions are most likely to be elicited in specific contexts.

For my own long-term well-being it seems critical that I learn a few key things:

  • becoming aware of the emotions that I have
  • correctly identifying the value or values which led to these (complex) emotions
  • to be able do so, having the language necessary to identify the emotions
  • attempting to back-track from the values to the underlying needs they represent
  • if no need seems to exist, the value may have to be altered to improve well-being

And in situations of experience “lack or loss” of well-being (discontentment) without strong emotional responses, it may be necessary to try to identify the need or needs that are not being met and attempting to generate or set up values that represent those needs.

S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi! — Relationships and responsibility

[Disclaimer: this post has been (heavily) edited on July 21, 2013]

In this post I want to reflect upon my current understanding of meaningful relationships. Before jumping into the topic however, I want to explain a bit about the first half of this post’s title… It comes from one of my (if not my most) favorite books: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

For those of you who do not know the book, it is the story of a man in a desperate and life-threatening situation–having crash-landed his own, small airplane in the desert, and not having much water to survive. He meets “the little prince”, who through conversations reveals what I would call extremely valuable truths about life: how people treat their existence, and how if they treated it differently their experience could potentially be much richer and fulfilling. The language is poetic as well as naïve, in the sense that it seems to be written for children; but for me, with every reading as an adult, I still “learn” from it. Many times, I was able to rephrase my own life in the terms the book provides and “see with my heart” to what extent I was able or not to already incorporate the notions I consider relevant and worthwhile.

To illustrate and give one of the most profound ways in which I experience relationships, I want to quote from the book–in the original French with a few comments of mine. After his arrival on Earth, but before meeting the pilot and narrator of the book, the little prince with his wheat-colored hair also meets a fox and they share a conversation. This is a part of it:

“S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi!” dit-il.

“Je veux bien,” répondit le petit prince, “mais je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. J’ai des amis à découvrir et beaucoup de choses à connaitre.”

“On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise,” dit le renard. “Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi!”

So, in this first part of the conversation the fox tries to explain that it is worth “taming” someone, that is to say getting close to as a friend; in fact it is the only way to make a friend, by spending time with and on someone. It is followed by an explanation on what exactly entails taming: the slow and deliberate process of establishing mutual benevolence, respect, trust, limits, rituals, and allowing natural and intuitive reliance on these relationship foundations to form over time. The little prince engages in this process, and by the end of it, evidenced by the following (shortened) dialog, has successfully tamed the fox:

(…) Et quand l’heure du départ fut proche:

“Ah!” dit le renard… “Je pleurerai.”

“C’est ta faute,” dit le petit prince, “je ne te souhaitais point de mal, mais tu as voulu que je t’apprivoise…”

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Mais tu vas pleurer!” dit le petit prince.

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Alors tu n’y gagnes rien!”

“J’y gagne,” dit le renard, “à cause de la couleur du blé.” (…) “Va revoir les roses. Tu comprendras que la tienne est unique au monde. Tu reviendras me dire adieu, et je te ferai cadeau d’un secret.”

(…) Et il revint vers le renard:

“Adieu,” dit-il…

“Adieu,” dit le renard. “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (…) “C’est le temps que tu a perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.” (…) “Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité,” dit le renard. “Mais tu ne dois pas l’oublier. Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. Tu es responsable de ta rose…”

In other words, once someone has been tamed as a friend, he or she will always remain special and, as the fox says, we remain responsible for keeping it that way. At the very end of the book, the author reflects on how meeting the little prince will always be a source of joy and meaning for his own life. And with that in mind, I am turning to some of my experiences…

About five years ago, only a few months after arriving in New York–and the United States for that matter–I got to know my first ever boyfriend. While it may not have been love at first sight, we developed a great sense of comfort, and despite our differences I think it is fair to say that we tamed one another: we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable, to rely on those elements of friendship and be hurt by their absence. Over time, we both experienced hurt and pain, and looking back I would say the biggest factor in the prolonged pain was a lack of determination and courage to communicate some of the aspects that were lacking or remained unsatisfactory. At some point I felt this relationship to be no longer adequately taking care of some of my needs. At first this was unconscious, and only too late it became fully visible to me.

Unfortunately, this lack of courage didn’t allow me to communicate this sense of dissatisfaction better with my boyfriend of then four years. I very unceremoniously and not at all truth-fully broke up with him. However, both due to the fact that we had tamed one another as well as my not being able to fully appreciate and boldly accept some of my needs–in part driven by very early childhood experiences, I believe–I decided to get back together to my ex-boyfriend, only to fail again…

From the past few months, I have learned it is essential for me that, once someone opens up to me and makes him or herself vulnerable, I do actually want to accept at least part of the responsibility for how he or she becomes fragile and that I want to take care of their needs and feelings, at least to the point that is part of the promise made during the taming. And now I simply have to accept that I cannot take anything back that I did, but want to look into the future and remain open in case my caring is appreciated and wanted. So, as one important life lesson learned: after breaking up with someone, I don’t want to cut the other person off.

Elements of an ideal intimate relationship (for me)

Clearly, the following thoughts are truly “idealistic” in the sense that I have by no means the answer to the question whether this would be possible or whether it would actually turn out to be idyllic, but I strongly feel that the following elements would, from my current perspective, make a relationship more enjoyable and fruitful, in the sense that it fulfills the purpose I think it has.

So, let’s start with that… Why would I want to be in an exclusive relationship to begin with? And please keep in mind that all I’m trying to say is that this applies to me, and only potentially to (some) other people!

This initial question leads me to what it is that I need in life to find contentment and happiness. Overall, I must say that I believe I can find these things through the experiences of learning and reaching goals, and of sharing those with other people, who then reflect back to me that I “got it”. For me the critical aspect of learning is that my mental representation of the world around me becomes more accurate. I have the subjective experience of mastery, of being able to successfully navigate the world. It’s like a child that finds joy in finally being able to stand and take the first few steps; and getting there is worth a few bumps and bruises along the way.

Which brings me to the second one: reaching goals. I believe the way my brain–and I think brains in general–conceptualizes the path through life is by placing value on certain experiences and to then improve the chance of making more valuable experiences it sets up goals. To allow complex action sequences, I think it is necessary to also place value on possibly counter-intuitive actions. Sometimes I have to first move away from something that is the primary source of value in order to obtain it, and when I am able to successfully follow this more complex path, the brain also generates a signal of “success” for intermediate steps, even though I did not yet get to the point of actually experiencing what I am after in the first place.

Unfortunately, my brain also produces a lot of noise signals and sometimes loses focus. Goals can be increasingly complex and in certain situations it might be almost impossible for me to see, from an “inside perspective”, how to possibly navigate a complex situation where the reward is visible but can only be obtained through a long series of complicated steps. For one, my brain may become tired and, over time, may lose the potential to keep sending those necessary intermediate signals to “keep me going”.

My foremost response then would be that having a single individual whom I feel most closely connected to–and I will go into detail about what this connection should entail in a bit–is a very intuitively appealing thought. For one, if this connection is genuine, that is to say without pretense and thoroughly honest, it can work as an external source of validation for one’s perceptions, thoughts, and decisions. Very often in life I have felt confusion about whether or not I see things “objectively enough”, followed by doubts about whether a decision I was about to make is truly the best I can do to reach a goal. If I know someone in my life who knows my goals, and who also cares about me reaching those goals, that person seems to be an invaluable source of information.

And here is where I would say nature has implemented an awesome mechanism: romantic love. While I would argue that until fairly recently in human history the concept of romantic love has only been professed by a few rather than by the many, the fact that in a lot of modern cultures the idea that two people joining in an exclusive union should be “in love” seems to suggest that there at least *may* be value in this concept.

Personally I think that the two main advantages of experiencing romantic love are putting the brain into a state of hyper-updating by providing increased levels of certain neurotransmitters that allow new pathways to form. This in turn lets us adapt to given circumstances with much less “resistance” offered by existing cognitive patterns. The other advantage seems to be a pain dampening effect, whereas negative experiences seem much less relevant in the presence of “love” (which I believe is also more persistent, even if the immediate effects of “being in love” have worn off).

Naturally, there are risks involved. First, if the person we fall in love with actually does not care about us in return–or at least to a much lesser degree–we may find ourselves in a position where the signals we are looking for become inconsistent or completely absent, or even worse they may also lead us entirely astray, away from our actual goals because our brains simply “believe” the sender. In that sense I do think that love does make blind to a certain degree.

So, why do I think that, for me, a single individual is possibly better than, say, a group of people we trust? In part I would say this comes from my perception that different people I know, people who I trust, and who I believe to have my best interest at heart, still do not necessarily agree upon what the best course of action is. And while in the greater context of politics and strategic decision making a “democracy”, that is to say the incorporation of several voices and opinions with a majority vote for decision making, has become the de facto standard, I don’t think that this approach is very practical on a personal level. For me at least, the idea of residual doubts and confusion about decisions already taken would be extremely difficult to reconcile with the idea of being able to resolutely move forward through life. Equally as I think that a “commander in chief” of, say, a nation should rather be someone who can make a decision and then not waver than be someone in whom people constantly perceive doubts about whether taken decisions are “good”.

And now, finally, I would come to the qualities of the person I would want to be with 🙂

First, I would want to experience an intuitive sense of understanding. While everything can be potentially explained in good time, and given enough motivation, I believe that it makes much more sense for me to be with someone where the need for explanations of my feelings and thoughts, my needs and goals, are the exception rather than the norm. I would want to experience that this person almost knows me better than I know myself–and to some degree that may then actually be correct, given their outside perspective. Misunderstandings can be extremely costly, particularly in the presence of life-altering decisions.

Second, I think I want to find someone perceptive and open-minded, someone who can think “outside of the box”, someone who allows thoughts to pass through potential barriers from the past. Given that I believe that the most rewarding experiences usually are achieved through somewhat more complex actions, it would seem necessary to be able to step back from the immediate problem and almost rotate it mentally into a different perspective. And to do so, I think it is necessary to be able to leave “known ground” and allow the brain to experience the unknown outside of chartered territory.

Next, I would want someone who is selfless enough to prioritize common goals, particularly the well-being of the relationship itself. Hopefully, the ideal relationship will only require minimal amount of “work”–that is to say maintenance effort to sustain a good standing–but at times that effort may be necessary, and then I would want to be with someone who can use his perceptiveness and cognitive abilities to detect potential issues and then find smart and effective ways to address them, even if that means temporarily cutting back elsewhere.

Finally, I would want to be with someone who has a gift for empathy and inter-personal warmth. In short, someone who cares. Human lives are never straight or easy. At times we experience great depressions and woes. And, then, having this one person around who understands what I’m going through, who perceives the issue and is able to provide both comfort and a fresh perspective that I may not be able to attain given my current state seems like the best chance I have to get out of the depths again.

So, what about physical qualities? Well, I do have a strong preference–for those who know me: silence is golden! I do think that for the brain to be “switched” into this initial state of attraction, physical parameters matter. But from personal experience I would say, the longer I know someone, the less those matter. In short, for me to decide that someone is “worth investigating”, the brain uses (obviously not entirely reliable) heuristics and then sets up a few mechanisms that, if things go well, are set into full motion for me to experience romance. Is it possible to get there without this initial setup? I believe so. I would however say that it’s also more “fun” to experience this first step 😉

And that’s it for now. I may revisit this topic again later though and “improve” on the list…

Who am I? — reflections on a queer identity…

Whew, while I never planned to put in some hiatus in October, I must admit it was nice to take a little break. But now, back to business!

At the beginning of last month, I went to the opening ceremony of Queer Awareness Month (QuAM) at Columbia University, and the keynote speaker, Rebecca Jordan-Young, gave a wonderful talk about how allowing aspects of identity to be defined in possibly overly narrow ways can be harmful to the individuals to which these identities are “applied”. And her insights into how studies on gender identity and sexual orientation in the past have used overly narrow selection criteria in the hope of improving observable differences between groups strongly suggest that the idea of a clear-cut biological mechanism that leads to a “female brain” or a “gay brain” may better be revisited.

Since then, I have been wondering again about where I fit into the “gay world”–or maybe better queer world, using the more general, and less easily defined term–and why people feel such a need to “label” others as well as themselves with more or less narrow and fixed categories at all? And here are some of my thoughts…

Even when I was growing up, I already had a fairly strong sense of not fitting into the mainstream. My parents did not feel any particular urge to play the “follow the fashion” game that seemed to have taken hold in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the German middle-class. A lot of my clothes were inherited from either of my three-and-a-half or five-and-a-half-year older brother, which, given the fact that fashion changed quite a bit between when they and I went to elementary and junior high school, was probably a tell-tale sign of either my parents not giving a damn about fashion or us not having a lot of money. And with young kids being somewhat consciously unaware of issues such as group pressure, my guess is that some of my class mates decided that my family wasn’t too well off… Please don’t get me wrong: that in itself certainly wasn’t the reason for me to feel “queer” (i.e. unusual or maybe even not-belong to the group), but is rather one example in which I differed but clearly one that increased that sense a lot. Even more importantly, my parents made it a point to tell their kids that, eventually and essentially, we were (and have thus learned to be) responsible for our lives. And while this led to a certain amount of friction whenever we had gatherings with wider family, I must say I am tremendously grateful that I was allowed to explore the concept of self-determination at an early age!

When it comes to applying labels to other people, one of the most important reasons I can think of for doing so is that knowing certain “facts” about someone I interact with might help me in forming more accurate expectations concerning future outcomes of those interactions. For instance, knowing that someone is married with children may suggest that, in a certain situation, this person is more likely to behave in a certain manner. In short, the added value of applying a label to someone else is gaining a (false?) sense of increased certainty when it comes to predicting someone’s behavior.

An additional reason is that different aspects of identity help in forming social groups, which usually leads to group cohesion and an increase in the willingness to share resources or defend other group members against outside aggression. On average, I might be more willing and likely to help someone who shares certain characteristics with me, such as being gay, compared to someone who is different. And naturally, this also requires me to apply labels to myself…

But this comes at a potentially hefty price: first of all, if I apply a label to someone and then have stronger expectations for that person’s behavior, my own actions will reflect or at least incorporate part of those expectations. For instance, if I assume that someone is superficial and not interested in a serious conversation, I may very well start a small-talk and then, surprise, all we will ever talk about are relatively superficial topics. And when it comes to personal liberties, which is a much graver thought, as soon as labels have been sufficiently fixed, such as what “being gay” means, other properties like rights or specific privileges and restrictions become attached to this label or identity. In the case of (e.g. gay) rights, this could mean that if someone does not fully fit the label, as with bisexual people, they may or may not be granted those rights.

For me personally, applying a label to myself naturally means that I can or will “identify” with the label and whatever traits, actions, beliefs, and values that are usually associated with it. In a way, this gives me added security because I do not have to question myself in every aspect of my life all the time. But on the other hand it may also restrict my liberty. If, for instance, I identify with being Republican, I may feel a very strong urge and motivation to publicly defend some other Republican, even though without the labeling (or shared identity) I would not do so based on the other person’s character or actions.

Additionally, I am wondering: how stable is my identity? Obviously there are aspects that are factual, such as that I was born in Germany, a historic fact, or that I am white/caucasian, something that is in all likelihood true for the remainder of my life. But besides some few identities that are unlikely to change (or even unchangeable), I would argue that the entire “rest” is up for grabs. And there are a lot of possible identities to choose from, usually depending on the context. I could for instance identify as a member of Columbia University, and more specifically as a neuropsychology researcher at Columbia, as a Harlem resident, or more generally as a New Yorker, as politically left-leaning but with strong beliefs in personal liberties and responsibility, as someone in their mid-thirties, as a dependently-employed worker, as an Apple product user, as a fan of Natalie Portman, and so on. The list of potential identities is endless, and in a way it seems that each of them both adds to my sense of self while at the same time taking away the liberty to be the opposite. To be clear: each of these identities is usually only helpful in the context of contrast, like being a New Yorker in midst of people from Texas. Being a white man in his thirties among fellow mid-thirty caucasians isn’t a very “helpful” identity at all. Otherwise we could all just identify with being human and that’d be enough!

In the end, I guess that’s why, just like Rebecca Jordan-Young, I like to identify as queer. It is a “label” with a relatively strong notion of what it adds in terms of my sense of self, allowing me to be different and unpredictable, but more importantly not restricting me in any direction (other than being absolutely and dead-center average). So, yes, I love being queer!

Oops, I did it again: An investment experiment

For those of you who don’t know, I want to start by describing my first ever “investment experience”: around 6 years ago, right after I started working at a small company in the Netherlands, I felt the need to think about my financial future. As part of that process I looked into options for how to invest the small amount of savings I had at the time, as well as the part of my salary I could afford to put out the side. But I also felt much less qualified about economic decision making back then. So I ended up going to my regular bank and bought into a fund product that closely tracked with the popular German stock market index, DAX. After an initial period of a few months, where I would check the fund value relatively often, I just assumed I had made a good decision needing little further thought.

In early 2008 I moved to New York, but kept my fund account in Germany–I yet needed to figure out: would I want to stay in the U.S. for longer, maybe forever? But 2008 turned out to be the year of the financial crisis. Already in 2007 the markets seemed to have hit an invisible ceiling, but that was nothing compared to the market shock of 2008. At the beginning of that year the DAX had already fallen from about 8,000 to under 7,000 points and, with great volatility, remained at that level for a while. What made me “get out” of the market then? Maybe the fact that my “capital” was so far away and I could only watch it decline slowly but steadily from across the Atlantic… Or maybe some “sense” told me that my savings might well be in danger. Anyway, around mid-August of 2008, at a time where the DAX had already lost around 20 per cent of its 2007 peak value, I asked my bank to sell my fund shares for good. One of my best financial decisions ever!

Only a few short months later, after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy had happened, the DAX crashed and with it the value of the fund I had kept buying over the 2-year period from mid-2006 through mid-2008. In the end I got an averaged annual return of about 1.2 per cent out of that investment, but only because the lump sum had been put into the fund account at the very beginning. Had I sold at the peak period I would have made a nice cut, but had I remained in the market until 2009, I might as well have lost half of my savings! In short, I had been extremely lucky and kind of promised myself never to “play” with financial investments again.

To this day, government officials both in the U.S. and Europe but also the people responsible for our currency at the Federal Reserve as well as the European Central Bank seem to believe that a problem caused, in my opinion, by too much liquidity in the financial sector can be solved by increasing liquidity even further. For instance, if you look at the 10-, 20-, and 30-year gold price chart, you can see that 2001 was a year of “change”. Ever since 2001 the price for an ounce of gold has climbed from around $280, the average price in the years 1999, 2000, and 2001, to an astonishing $1,770 by the end of last week. At the time right before the financial crisis the price was already at $900, three times as much as only 7 years earlier! And after an initial dip down to $700, all that the financial crisis since then has added to the chart is extreme volatility.

Whenever representatives of the government or the Fed talk about the fact that we do not have higher-than-usual inflation rates, yet, the only relevant quantity they refer to is inflation as measured by the consumer price index, short CPI, which indeed has not yet climbed above what people might think of as an acceptable rate. But at the same time, in the years since the Lehman Brothers collapse at least, commodities have increased a little less than 100 per cent–here’s an explanation for a commodity price index. And I think that even people who never look into stock or commodities price charts are beginning to wonder whether and how much more “liquidity”, now again provided with the Fed’s QE3 program, is supposed to help the (job) market.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of either “our financial system is about to crash” or “our currency will fail soon”. What I want to say is that there is some inflation in our currency, but that this inflation has not yet occurred on the consumer price side. So far, the additional liquidity has found its way mostly into financial products, such as derivatives, but to some extent also wandered into the commodity markets. This means that those markets–including the price for gold and silver, for sure–are subject to a “bubble”. The price level seems unrealistically high. But I think it is at least fair to say that the additional money did not go into increased production and hiring of workers…

And now, finally, after this very long preamble, I can come to the experiment I am doing: since I do not trust the stock market any longer–the price of most traded stock seems to be based more on the fantasy of the shareholders and potential buyers than some “real value”–I decided to put a small fraction of my savings, about $6,000, into precious metals, mainly silver. From my own research over the past few days, it seems that most “experts” recommend that 10 to 15 per cent of savings are put into precious metals.

Not that I’m saying that I necessarily trust these expert opinions… Instead I will try to give a few reasons why, for me, owning just a little bit of silver might not be the worst of things. To be clear, I am not expecting any particular outcome of the economic and global financial situation. If anything, I am trying to be ready for all possibilities. What could happen? Well, first of all, nothing could happen, nothing at all. Maybe the banks and governments are right, and after another period of slow growth and getting the more practical problems straightened out the global economy will be “back on track”. Then again, there is also the possibility that, with all this additional liquidity having been created, governments and banks have very few popular options to “take it back”, to effectively remove money from the system again. Still, any bubbles that exist in some of the markets must, eventually, burst or spill over into the real economy: people will want to spend their “capital gains”, consumer prices might finally show substantial inflation. This increase in spending could be triggered by several factors, one of them being a loss in faith in the stability of the currency. I don’t want to guess, but even with an inflation rate of between 5 and 20 per cent per year, prices for food and other items of daily value could easily double in like 10 years, but also in as little as 4 years, a final-term presidency for sure…

The solution I personally prefer for handling this surplus liquidity would be to truly remove the money–and debt, given that our money is nothing but debt, one way or another–from the system. But that would, of course, require that some people, particularly the better-off, those who profited most from the policies of the past 10 years, must be willing to give up a significant part of their wealth, finally re-distributing from rich to poor. And that isn’t something that, in my mind, could currently be “sold” to the American or European public. So, I do not see anything like that coming. As I said above, yes, the prices of gold and silver are, in all likelihood, already above their “true value”, at least when compared to what a dollar can still buy “on the street”, but…

The current estimates of silver mining, reserve availability, and industrial use, such as data presented as part of the U.S. Geological Survey–and for those of you who know German, here’s a table that contains industrial usage data–say for instance that if “things were to stay the same” as today, we might run out of silver being minable at known locations with currently available technology in about 25 years. Naturally, a lot of previously mined silver is still readily accessible, such as in actual silverware or coins. And when the price for silver were to grow due to shortage in production, I am sure that people would start, in masses, to scourge through their possessions, hoping to find a silver fork or spoon which could then, literally, feed them for a day, at least once it’s sold or bartered. And or course new silver reserve deposits might be found or better techniques developed.

Yet another important datapoint is that, even with already inflated prices of about US$35 per troy ounce today, the silver production of one whole year would cost only a little shy of $27 billion dollars. In other words, the amount of money the Fed is prepared to pump into the market on a monthly basis would already suffice to buy the entire silver production of a entire year. Put differently, the worldwide production of a year is just enough so that each and every American could roughly buy two or three one-ounce silver coins, like the American Eagle–luckily not that many coins are minted! Otherwise, the perfect recipe for a perfect bubble…

Finally, silver has become an essential component in many industrial products. Being the metal with the best electrical conductivity properties at room temperature and little corrosion, it is kind of irreplaceable in quite a few contexts. While exact numbers seem hard to come by, the fact that there are many applications and around 38 per cent of the annual production already is put to industrial use, it is safe to say that silver will always find a buyer. So, despite any possibly existing bubbles in the market, the price will never go down to $0.

And while gold seems much more appropriate with a currency crisis in mind, it is unfortunately far less easy to barter with. Even a relatively small gold coin weighing 1/20 ounce costs already around $100 in today’s market. And gold also has a bad reputation for having seen either official or informal prohibitions, up to confiscations, in the past. Silver on the other hand can be traded or bartered in relatively small units. In times of a possible crisis, which would most likely be very temporary in nature, owning a little bit of silver might come in handy if, for instance, I would want to “pay” for some urgently needed good or service, such as some pain killers from a stranger.

Now, do I actually believe the currency will crash? Not anytime soon, no. But it will need serious effort and, possibly, reform to regain the trust and faith of people before we can come back to a fully functioning economy. Unfortunately, current policies are still rooted in the neoclassical and neoliberal theories of monetary markets. The idea that the job market can be “eased” by flooding the economy with money will hopefully die soon, maybe after the next failed experiment or two. But I want to be prepared for each of the following three situations:

First, nothing could happen. In that case, my investment experiment in buying some silver means neither loss nor gain. Second, the currency/financial markets calm down and the silver bubble bursts. My own estimate for a then realistic silver price would be somewhere around $15 per ounce. I would then have lost around 5 per cent of my savings–although, in the future, these coins might very well still become an investment, I just have to hold on! Third, however, the currency might crash for good. In that case, I will have a small amount of “wealth” (i.e. real value!) in form of silver coins, which I can then barter with until a new currency has been established.

And when it comes to a “new currency”… As a thought for another, future blog post maybe: I still think the best way to organize the “creation of money” would be by simply accepting the notion that money is nothing but our way of doing “double book keeping” with each other. In that case, whenever some actual wealth (i.e. value) is produced or a service is rendered, the person generating the value should simply “create” the money for that value with it. That would give the money creation privilege into the hands of those who also create the value: the people! It’s a little bit like time sharing.

Naturally, people would have to trust one another and, for many tasks, some kind of rule-of-thumb would have to be found as to how the “valuation” of doing that task can be done. At the very least, we would unlikely get back to the current system where people earn so disproportionately based on their jobs. Oh, and making money out of money would of course not work. That would be like making money out of thin air–exactly what banks are doing everyday right now! 😉

Family issues…

Whaaaat? No more economy blogging? Well… I admit, I still have a couple of ideas and thoughts on the economy that are worthy to be blogged about, but I feel I don’t want to become too limited by writing about a single topic all the time. Plus, today I made two very interesting experiences that stirred up the following question in my mind: For me, personally, what are the building blocks of “family”? But first about my experiences…

My boyfriend, who is originally from the Philippines, told me that I had been invited to join his aunt and uncle’s family at a one-year commemorative service for the late mother of his uncle. When I arrived at the family home, I was surprised to find out that the service wasn’t to be held at the local church but rather at their house. And the priest, a friend of the family, was picked up at his place specifically for that occasion. Naturally, not everyone who had been at the funeral service the previous year appeared–the house would also have been too small–but I was again awed by the fact that not everybody who joined in the hour of prayer was part of the “most immediate family” (although among Filipinos that might be a much wider circle). Then again, I myself was also invited, which reminded me of the first observation of the day: family is not a “rigid” concept, something that is seen the same way in every culture, maybe even something that is differently viewed and interpreted throughout the USA, at least when it comes to “who is family”. Let’s just say that I am extremely grateful that I have been welcomed and, in a way, been “inaugurated” into their family!

The second experience occurred to me out of sheer luck. On my way home I had to take the Staten Island Ferry, and while I was climbing the steps from the Yankees Stadium into the St. George Terminal, I saw a woman with an obviously heavy suitcase who I asked if she would accept my assistance. She would, and on my way up those steps I began a conversation. As it turned out, she was on her way to work, a job in which she is helping foster parents doing the best they can in situations with children from socially and behaviorally difficult backgrounds. My interest was kindled–both of my two older brothers are working in this very field: assisting children and their families in situations where external advice and support due to social or behavioral problems is either requested or required by law.

During the conversation that ensued, which made the time that I had to wait for the ferry as well as the ride to Manhattan seem to pass in mere minutes, we touched many topics. And while the following thoughts are naturally not a complete recollection of the entire conversation, I think they capture the gist of what was said quite well:

Some of the more central elements of family have to be mutual respect, care, and interest as well as structure and dependability. When people who are, at least in the more common case of families not entirely out of choice, living together, forming a unit, it is important that each member of that unit shows respect for the other members and their situation. Equally, it is essential that in cases of distress care and support should be given to those who need it, and that to determine or rather detect those cases, a general attitude of interest for each member has to be present. In fact, I would go as far as saying that these three elements are probably the basis for any form of relationship, at least any relationship that works and lasts, and that not only refers to personal but explicitly also includes business relationships. But on top of these, it is important that a family also provides structure. Instead of having to constantly negotiate meal or meeting times, chores rosters, financial obligations and allowances, plus a general code of conduct, families usually have–in most cases unwritten and not even necessarily ever spoken-out-loud–rules, almost-laws that each member is supposed to obey.

Out of the discussion came the thought that one of the issues I perceive in “unhappy families” is that those rules are, in fact, not very well developed (so they exist), or that they are dominated by either the parents, such as in an authoritarian household, or the children, families where parents are over-indulging their offspring to the extent that those children have little reason let alone the chance to ever learn that the contract underlying a functioning social relationship should never be too demanding or disadvantageous for one of the sides, because the relationship will then sooner or later break apart or become inefficient.

To be clear, I think that love and sacrifice are equally important elements of family, like parents being there for their children, no matter what, who will undertake anything and everything to ensure that “their next generation” will have the best possible foundation available for their lives. But as much as being willing and able to sacrifice might be, if the resolve and oftentimes action shown by parents in form of a sacrifice on their part is not paired with a mutually agreed-upon “social contract”, then I do not find it surprising that parents might complain about their children who, after everything that has been done “for them”, are ungrateful or lack respect. The same is, however, true for children who complain that their parents are never available and don’t show enough interest in their lives, by which I do not only mean practical outcomes but also the internal struggle in children’s lives as well as their emotional well-being.

The funny thing is that, once this contract becomes “visible”–that is, the members of the family actually talk about what should and what should not be part of the contract–many conflicts seem manageable at the very least, even if some solutions might require “thinking outside of the box”: for instance, I remember that when I was about 9 years old, my entire family once went to some group therapy sessions in which we were asked to role-play some of the more typical conflict situations that occurred, an activity followed by a feeling of amusement about the absurdity of our own behavioral scripts–and insight!

Unfortunately, our current way of living–including the mantra of ever-increasing productivity and economic growth–simply does pose many problems for a small-income or single-parent family. What to do when school ends at 5 in the afternoon, but the mother has to work until 7:30pm to make ends meet? Well, obviously the mother cannot simply abandon her job to “fulfill” the contract: in my opinion at least, a younger child has the somewhat reasonable expectation that a parent or guardian will be available for supervision and support during the day. But to simply tell your kid, “mom will be home at 9, just watch some TV when you get home” doesn’t seem like the solution of choice either… When the mother then does come home late and something happened during the hours the child was home alone, both mother and child might end up playing a round of the “who’s-to-blame” game. An equally fruitless as well as predictable endeavor: possibly a few moments of pleasure from vindictiveness and vengeance but definitely and eventually a lot of frustration and resentment on both sides!

Looking back on my own childhood, I once again can only say that I count myself as extremely lucky. After just having returned to working as a teacher once my two older brothers could be left in the care of a nanny for at least a few hours at a time, my mom unexpectedly got pregnant again, with me–which is a story in itself, and I want to do it justice, so I’ll tell it some other time… Suffice it to say, my mother decided that she would retire from being a teacher and become a full-time housewife instead. That meant that I grew up with the secure knowledge that when my day at kindergarden or school was over, someone family would be home, usually waiting with a freshly prepared meal as well as the true interest in and support with whatever was going on in my life at the time. On the other hand, my dad, while maybe being a quantum unorthodox and unfinished in his child-rearing methods, would always allow questions, try to explain the rules he sought to implement, and share his views on things with the whole family.

This combination, a dependable structure, full of loving, kind interest and support, paired with the effort to learn, improve, and then teach how to communicate and negotiate this social contract that defined and still defines our family, is probably why, to this day, I count each and every member of my immediate family to those people I would sacrifice literally everything for.

And, as a last remark: as much as I endorse the somewhat conservative idea of a family being a couple of two loving people caring for the children so as to educate them and help them develop a good moral character of their own by providing the necessary framework, I simply fail to see why a gay couple, two men as much as two women, would be unfit to meet the challenge. Quoting from Mitt Romney’s website about values:

“The values that Mitt Romney learned in his home have enriched his life immeasurably. With his parents’ example before him, he married, had five sons, and now basks in the joy of eighteen grandchildren.

Marriage is more than a personally rewarding social custom. It is also critical for the well-being of a civilization. (…)”

If only he would have ended there, and I couldn’t have said anything against it. What I find very sad, however, is that it doesn’t say what those values are and why gay couples would be unfit to pass them on:

“(… continued) That is why it is so important to preserve traditional marriage – the joining together of one man and one woman. As president, Mitt will not only appoint an Attorney General who will defend the Defense of Marriage Act – a bipartisan law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton – but he will also champion a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.”

If he refers to (character) education, I must say that I am very disappointed to see that the page on his site about education doesn’t seem to mention the role of functioning families at all–I hope this doesn’t imply children are supposed to learn what it means to uphold and respect a social contract at school, a little late I would say…