Critical Thinking

When the headlines recently focused on the arrest of professional football player Richard Sherman, the smaller bylines of the story told a familiar tale. It involved drinking, driving, and acting out irrationally. That same week my Big Book study group was reading Jim’s Story from edition four, page 232. It is the story of an early member of AA’s first Black group, and I couldn’t help but see the similarities between the two stories. It had nothing to do with being of color, it had everything to do with the disease of alcoholism, and the commonalities that check the list off one by one as they, many times, tell the stories of others in AA as well. In Jim’s Story he speaks of stabbing his wife on a street corner. It’s not hard to picture that Sherman may have been in the same irrational state of mind as well as he tried breaking into his In-Laws home. I can remember reading these kinds of sports stories when I was still out and about, toxic to whatever ends I could find. I can remember feeling like it was a personal attack on myself, my team, my city. An assault on my juxtaposed feeling of superiority if they were declared winners that week. These guys had it all and chose to throw it away! That was infuriating in my thinking, my toxic sensibilities. These guys owed us something!? That same sentiment, one of being ungrateful, selfish, and self centered, has been a part of the public recoil in the last several months as athletes have, more and more, chosen to forgo a competition or practice, or are in need of, mental health assistance. This is something that would not have stood even five years ago as the need for competition, for entertainment, and for contractual reasonings, would not have allowed this to occur. Today, understanding is being allowed to grow in our societal fabric as we enter a new era of change. Whether this is a new normal, or just a temporary regularity, this “talk” has begun in earnest.

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As the Olympics were kicking off in Japan in the past weeks, the pandemic altered formatting revealed a more accepted social atmosphere in the area of mental health awareness. That this focus is coming during a time of a global pandemic is not by accident. The isolationist necessities of the virus has brought an acute awareness to those mental health needs. The parts that work together, or stop working altogether, have effected many intimately. As a mindset of getting back to normal is woven together with a mindset of constant change, and constant readjusting, the sense making that our thinking works tirelessly at becomes dumbfounded. It is almost a constant state of turning on the lights, watching the bulb instantly burn out, and then trying to find a way across the black expanse from that instant memory picture that you took, or didn’t take? This mental health acceptance is a part of the unwinding of the stigmas and misunderstandings that for generations created their own compounding stigmas and societal unacceptance. These mental health pieces of our society that have been ignored as long as possible by mainstream journalism are finding new traction in today’s questioning atmosphere. They are the pieces of life that are not easily spoken of, and the difficulties seem too much for our collective psyche’s to consume much of the time. They are hard to listen to, and we are inherently trained to look for differences instead of similarities. Professional tennis player Naomi Osaka recently passed on the Press Conference at Rolland Garros to exercise self-care, famously stating “It’s OK, not to be OK.” Singer Demi Lovato has also been an outspoken advocate for many mental health causes. Now, arguably the world’s best gymnast, Simone Biles has added her name to the high profile list supporting mental health above even the greatest of opportunities. There are parts of mental health concerns that are outsized in some, and under sampled in others. There are parts of it that seem to affect us all, and some things that affect very few. The dismantling of the stigma machines is underway, and athletes, and entertainers are leading the collective push for these issues to have a more normalized place in our dialogue.

One of the main difficulties that make all of this talking out in the open is the judgements we make, and why we make them. They are in turn one of the openings into the fear catalog we all carry in one size or another. The reason it was hard to talk about the difficulties I had with alcohol and life, my emotions and my fears, was the thought of being judged about it. That is not hard to remember, as the same thoughts still run through my mind today, when I share at meetings, or type thoughts up on a blog. It’s here that I could go on at length about judgements and the merits of, or the dangers of that lay within, but that would be just another form of judgement. What is important to remember here is, that even in our technological abundance we are inherently an animal, a species, one that is bound to natural order above all else. Our need for discerning our environments to survive, to adapt, and to decipher negatives and positives from our surroundings is a practice leftover from our hunter-gatherer genes. So, as the practice is inherent, it is once again, what is done with it that is often unseen, unnourished, and often hypocritical. It is at once the inner self speak, and the outer self projections that we use to guide us, and others. It is the expectations we give ourselves, the expectations we give situations, the behaviors we wish of the people in our lives, and the biases that we gather. It’s how we wish the world to be and in turn it’s the manager of our motivations to those ends. It’s important to understand this aspect of the big construct, the way we work, the human universe. Because like many of the benefits of better thinking practices, being able to deconstruct the thought processes allows an inroads to fix them when they become out of tune. They also provide parameters when that tuning is not even near the place it normally rests. Whether in recovery or not, just a good practice in dealing with life is understanding the thinking that goes into it to begin with. Judgements break down into a lot of areas, and cross a lot of circuits as they are created, the reason mental health is difficult to speak of is because it comes from the very things we are trying to hide, our biases, our expectations, and our fears.

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We fear much of what we don’t understand, what we cannot control, or make use of. Other people’s thoughts, intentions, and expectations, are not what we are necessarily taught to think of. In looking at the athletes and entertainers I spoke of, I must admit I know little of their collective professional stats. What I do know is more about their personal lives, and the judgements we make of them as they go through their personal and public lives. I come to these observations because of my own recent experiences with mental health anxieties, deconstructing the forces that control and constrict better thinking, and broadening the definition of self I use to experience and interact in the world with. The reason why judgements came into my thinking was because of amazing and nonsensical anxieties and fears that began developing. The fears formed were of the inability to perform even the simplest of tasks, the anxieties that enabled the fears were running rampant too, building them into real world problems, real world beliefs. There are numerous papers on the psychological effects of this pandemic, but much of the fear catalog and anxiety familiarity is much older than that. It was when I was trying to control the errant thoughts, and unbuild the anxiety structures that I saw the connections to the judgements that I make, the direction I am propelling myself in. It opened the part of the decisions that I think I make, which are actually more fully formed than I believed them to be. Like I said, judgements break down into a lot of areas, and part of the better thinking that was placed into the focus point was understanding this area a little clearer. Being judgmental, seeing that desire to classify, and place value on things and actions, people, and their behaviors, all led me to examine this part of us. It’s too big to package into any kind of neat and tidy box, and that’s the problem with talking about mental health concerns too. When subjects are too complex, the breaking it down into neat and easy bites to chew on leaves the whole less understood instead of more.

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As I was taking apart my anxieties, and the expectations I was giving myself. It was there that the whole judging part came in and I saw the overly perfect expectations that I put on myself, and a lot of other things in my life. Along with what those judgmental parts were that attached themselves onto my thoughts and decision making. They wanted me to classify things as good or bad, ethical or not, a placing of my values and my own beliefs over everything. I once wrote about placing a stencil of sorts over my emotions and this had the feeling of being a much bigger one. Understanding where my own thinking has its traps and pitfalls has allowed me to place mental signposts at the point of maladaptive thinking, wrong thinking, and just plain old made up fairy tales. Those posts also allow me to stay away from the thinking that drives me closer to addictions, they remind me along the way to stay on the path that has made the last decade of grateful growth quite surprising. Understanding the facets of how judgments works in all of that thinking is crucial in the big think of things, not stopping it from happening, that would be ill conceived. But for understanding how it makes up the nervous system of our behaviors, and our motivations. How it shapes beliefs and even the ability to grow inside, and out. Knowing what judgments are in use, what the reasoning is for one decision or the other has helped in right sizing my own expectations, in correcting the overactive anxiety, and has shown me a window on my fears that I was unaware of in the bigger scheme of things. One of the first things I noticed as I judged my judgments was how so much of the old thinking was still attached to decision making. Old connotations and beliefs that continued to craft behaviors and thinking patterns that weren’t cohesive, didn’t work anymore, and just didn’t make sense. The self doubts, anxiety, fears, and a gallery of other thoughts were waiting there ready made for use in my world today. It’s here that I was able to feel with a more tactile sensory feeling that belief systems ran deeper than the spiritual inputs and outputs. Belief systems, including my own, in myself, were more closely connected to family, community, and environments than what the ego was willing to admit, or even see. Rebuilding these areas with the knowledge and truths I hold today is a part of recovery, a part of life, that will mandate a change in my practicing, and with it a better acceptance of myself and others. Understanding the balance within it all is the task at hand in our society as well. The talking about life has begun to include our inner struggles, our humanity, and reveal the faults of our stardust.

Recently, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, stated “Mental Health is Health.” That was the same belief that was prominent in ancient Greece and Roman civilizations too. Mental illness was treated as a health condition, and treated accordingly. The judgments that have cultivated the current societal stigmas have had centuries to ebb and flow. They stem from the bounty of beliefs that we hold so dear and are willing to die to defend. Within those beliefs is often held the belief that there must be something to disbelieve in to shore up the structure of those beliefs, something I don’t hold as necessarily true. Mental Health will find the roadblocks of inclusion that every other piece of our culture has had to push though, has had to fight through, to be more widely accepted in our societal dialogue. It is as subjective as our beliefs are, and our judgments make the subject into, and it will be difficult for many to understand. It is the story of us at its most intimate level, and a lifeline to humanity that we have let slip away in our egoic rush into tomorrow. Whether this is a new normal, or a temporary regularity, it is something that touches us all in one form or another. In looking into my own story I unveiled a bit more understanding of how I engage the world, and a manner in which to practice a better way of thinking. The larger conversations have to start somewhere in a world struggling with so much to say. I can only share my story, with the hope that some acceptance is found for this part of the human equation. The points to acceptance in life grew, and points of fear reduced, as I right sized and better understood, the judgements.

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