Saturday, December 4, 2010

Does Reason destroy Emotions?

As a teenager I had the notion that reason has the power to destroy emotions. That thinking on a subject and analyzing it has the power to make it detached from my values.

I think this a common viewpoint and phenomenon and I wonder what causes it.

I know it is not the way things are for me today, but the very opposite. The fact that I understand things better makes me feel more clearly and intensely - because subconsciously I see the elements involved in daily occurrences more clearly - I see how they relate to my values more clearly and so I get more emotional about them.

Sometimes reason and emotions can have an opposite "opinion". Because emotions are based primarily on subconscious thinking while reason is a conscious process. So it is possible to be very mad at someone while consciously thinking that one has no reason to be mad. The conflict can be resolved with successful introspection, but it is possible to have such a split prior (or without) introspection.

However, it seems like reason as destroying or going against emotions is a bigger issue than just a few instances. People believe that reason is inherently opposed to reason - that the way to know and live fully is to base one's cognition on emotions rather than on thinking.

I think one possible reason is that most people (and me as a teenager) do not hold a rational, consistent system of ethics. What we learn as ethical or "normal behavior" from society is almost entirely a set of arbitrary rules, based on common sense in part and on blind heritage in the other.
Meanwhile, subconsciously, people do develop their own ideas of ethics which are only experienced as "feelings" of what is right and what is wrong, without the ability to understand why it is so. The result is that every time they apply reason, they feel stiffed in their decision making and in how they feel about the situation, while when they use their emotions without reason their automatized values remain safe.

It is knowledge of rational ethics with full, clear understanding of it that actually solves the problem and makes reason a tool and an aid, rather than an enemy and a destroyer.

My conclusion is that reason does not inherently destroy emotions. It is a tool, a valuable tool to understand one's emotions and ultimately, to have the power of conviction and clarity in what one feels.

Intellectualization as a defense mechanism is still possible - it is a process of diverting one's focus from the source of a negative emotion into a "safe", yet related topic, which does not carry with it the power of those negative emotions (because it does not discuss the essence of those emotions). It is a way to use our will to avoid facing the problem. But this is not a process of reasoning. Reasoning and intellectualizing have one element in common - the use of our conscious mind and our will to consider specific content. They are both active, not passive, processes, but that is all they have in common.
In other words, we must not confuse reason with this defense mechanism. Reason is not inherently an enemy of emotions.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How can humans lie to themselves?

It is possible to avoid recognizing a truth, which is already known to us on some level.

How is that possible?

The answer lays in the structure of our consciousness; we have a subconscious and a conscious mind. The subconscious contains everything we know and have stored away. The conscious is that content which we focus our mind on at any given moment. It draws both from the subconscious and from input from the world.

When there is something we experience in the world which is directly related to a low-level subconscious knowledge, we experience it automatically. We also experience emotions, which draw from the subconscious, automatically. However, to be conscious of more abstract or complex knowledge, we must focus our mind in order to perceive it.
People can spend years in psychotherapy digging into their subconscious to figure out what conclusions they have drawn and are drawing subconsciously. The content of our subconscious is not automatically conscious. If you've ever experienced an emotion which was based on a judgement which you could not decipher, Then you experienced first hand the separation between the conscious and the subconscious. Some content is buried so deep in the subconscious it takes a lot more than an act of will to bring to consciousness.

It is this fact that allows us to lie to ourselves. We can know something subconsciously but repress it and deny it - and thus make it absent from our immediate awareness.

A self-lie can only have so much power. Subconsciously, the knowledge is there. And that knowledge is being drawn and used to generate our emotions.
Moreover, when there is a collision between what a man is trying to tell himself and what his subconscious knows, he develops a sense of guilt and self-alienation.
Self-lies are possible - but they have their own nature - and they never go fully deep.

Imagine, for example, that a spouse cheats on their partner. They decide not to tell them about it and try to enjoy the love of the partner as if it were fully deserved and given by free choice and full knowledge. They lie to themselves when, during time with their partner they try to eliminate from their consciousness the nature of the choice their partner is making about them - an uninformed choice. They divert their mind from the fact that the affection they are receiving is not given by choice and that they do not deserve it.
When together, the spouse can divert their focus away from the betrayal and thus not experience negative emotions in an intense form. But subconsciously the knowledge cannot be erased, and therefore they cannot develop intimacy with their partner nor enjoy their love, nor feed on the partner's appreciation of them.

Animals cannot lie to themselves the same way that humans can't lie to themselves regarding very basic concepts. We cannot, for example, convince ourselves that a table we see is not really a table, but we can convince ourselves, to some degree, that we are motivated by a motivation which is different than the actual one. For example, telling oneself that one is motivated by a desire to help someone when in fact one wants something for oneself.

Animals cannot think in the way humans do - in that higher level, and therefore cannot lie.

So in conclusion, us humans can lie to ourselves by diverting our consciousness away from case-relevant and correct subconscious content, when that content is abstract and complex enough.
A self-lie can never go all the way because our subconscious generated emotions based on the subconscious content, whether or not we are aware of that content.
The emotion will always contain that which we hold subconsciously.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Indulging in belief is self-damaging

Many people think that there is no harm in self-illusion if it makes someone happy.

I contend that this were true, if only it actually did make an overall positive impact on their lives.

Knowing reality is required for dealing with it. Are there some aspects of reality which we can afford not to know or to have false information of?
Probably some - like stars billions of light years away from us, have very little effect on our lives. Knowing the truth about them still matters because eventually knowing space is essential for our survival, but not as urgent as knowing the content of our food is healthy or that we are indeed mortals or that driving a car recklessly can kill us.

Faith, however, provides a temporary emotional relief at the expense of valuable information - knowledge that actually IS relevant to one's life.
If it were not relevant to one's life, people would not be so emotionally attached to their mystical beliefs. It is precisely because faith involves illusions on matters relevant to one's values that one clings to it.

For example - believing in god or in destiny. How can that possibly be harmful?
The answer is that believing in those things alleviates one's sense of responsibility for one's life. It imitates the psychological state of childhood, when a child has a parent watching over them - only in this case, no such parent actually exists.

A religious person can therefore go to war, not objectively evaluating the risk, thinking that god will protect them. They can engage in reckless behavior or invest money believing that their "fate" is not such that they would go bankrupt or get injured.
In reality, there is no such force of protection - thus these people remain in great danger without ever admitting or recognizing it.
When things go wrong, they simply hang on to their belief in god or in destiny even tighter and just "accept" whatever bad things happen as their fate.
A non-believer would realize that their lives are in their own hands and act to prevent or solve that bad situation.

Even a belief in astrology can be damaging. Some people make decisions based on astrology, such as making investments, getting into or refraining from getting into a relationship and so on.
In case of a relationship, astrology believers spend their time "reading the star maps" rather than actually getting to know the person. They may become so involved in their belief that it may even lead to marriage - only to end later in misery since the couple is not actually compatible.

If we are to be happy we must make it our business and goal to know the truth - both about the outside world and about our inner life. Our life and happiness depend on it.


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Friday, April 30, 2010

Pleasure in challenges vs. Fear of failure

One crucial choice of approach to life we all face as children is how to deal with challenges.

The approach one develops and practices over the years affects one's self-esteem and one's ability to pursue one's values and goals.

Some adults find intense pleasure in complex challenges that take a long time to achieve, while others feel intimidated by them and shy away from them.

The reason for the difference is one's subconscious evaluation of one's ability to succeed, to acquire skills.
The man who takes pleasure in challenges feels pleasure because he judges what he is doing as being on a road to proving his own worth once more.
The one who dreads the challenge has the subconscious evaluation of themselves as being on the way to failure, of which every difficult step is further proof of that impending failure.
In reality they may have everything it takes to succeed had they had different motivation, but their motivation can be such a great barrier that they will never achieve that goal and start building their confidence.

It all starts in childhood when a child faces their first few challenges.
At an early stage kids seek immediate satisfaction without delay. If they solve challenges, they are of a simple, short-duration nature. If a child succeed in solving challenges with gradually increasing durations, eventually they learn that it pays off sometimes to pick tasks with delayed satisfaction. It starts from putting a cube through the right hole, to arranging some pictures in the right order, to building Lego models of an airplane (which takes an even longer time to complete) - to more complex tasks like programming.

It is not all a smooth sail - every kid faces those challenges in which they fails a number of times, and here comes the crucial waypoint where the two opposite approaches form.
The child, having failed several times, and still having the frame of mind of pursuing immediate gratification will face the decision to persist and try again or to give up and go back to the familiar, easy stuff they know how to do.
They have not yet experienced, at this stage, the value of delayed satisfaction and they barely have yet a concept of their own ability, because confidence develops based on success in challenges like the one they are facing in this case.

Here is where the parents have a crucial role in guiding their kids in the right direction. The parents can encourage the child to give up and go back to "fun stuff", or they can push him and slightly help the child persist in the goal.
They can teach the child that persistence in pursuing goals is a virtue, create a comfortable atmosphere for failing (so long as the child tries again) or teach the kid to take the easy road so that they don't have to see the kid upset.

Even given the right idea, a child still faces the choice of insisting on succeeding in a challenge or giving up, but having the right emotional background and (non-verbal) approach play a central role in what would occur to a child to choose.
A child learns a great deal what emotional reaction is appropriate for a situation.
You often see kids look at the parent's faces after some occurrence to observe their parent's expression and learn how they should react.
If they look at the parent's face after failing and see fear, they are likely to decide that this is the right response. But if the see a smile and quiet confidence, they learn that the right approach (or emotional background) is patience and calamity.

The reason this waypoint is so crucial is because those first attempts at a challenge are the base for a child's confidence and attitude toward challenges.
A child that has overcome the initial negative emotions and succeeded several times, develops a positive view of their own ability, of challenges, and learns to associate challenges with reward and self-esteem at the end.
A child that has repeatedly given up, on the other hand, forms a pattern and learns to associate challenges with failure and pain, creating a loop which cannot be broken until and unless the child (or the adult) decides to "do it anyway" and keep on doing it until they succeed.

So the conclusion?

If you have a child, teach them that the appropriate emotional background to challenges is relaxation and patience.
If you are an adult with a fear of failure (as I am, to some degree): Pick some tasks which you want to succeed in, and stick to them. Break them down to small steps which gradually increase in duration and go for it. It is only after succeeding over and over again despite temporary difficulties (or failure) that you will eventually build your confidence and learn to associate challenges with pleasure.

Your feeling about yourself and about what is possible for you in the world depends on it, so the investment is well worth the time.


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Monday, April 19, 2010

The value of Privacy

Would you have a problem living in a house with glass walls? How about having all your conversations audible to all who are interested?

Most people, if not all, would find it very disturbing.

Why is it that people care so much about other eyes and other ears invading their space? Is it a weakness that needs to be overcome? An indication that one is not confident enough or that one does not have an independent mind?
Is it because one is ashamed of certain things and wants to deceive the world or hide one's identity?

No - to all of those. Not as the general answer to the question of the value of privacy.

Privacy is required for the protection of one's mental experience from foreign elements that can interfere, damage or destroy it.

I am not talking here of obvious things such as noise or people physically standing in one's way. Obviously, if a place is so crowded as to not allow one to spend time standing comfortably next to someone else or hear what they say, that is a disvalue. To understand the value of privacy as such I eliminate such conditions and concentrate only on the silent presence of the consciousness of other people, similar to how it would be like if your life were recorded and broadcasted over the internet.

So when I say that the presence of the consciousness of others is enough to disturb an experience, that is the sort of situation I am talking about.

In what way, you may ask, can the consciousness of others disturb our mental experience? These people are, in this hypothetical situation, just sitting there.

The answer is that keeping in mind the mental experience of others creates an emotional response which will mix with the emotional response to any experience. For example, suppose you are dancing to a favorite song of yours, you think you are all alone and let yourself loosen up and express your feelings when all of a sudden you spot someone looking at you, smiling. Their expression introduces into your mind a whole different universe than your own - a different way of looking at things, of judging things and feeling about them. So while you may value your dance a lot and see it as something precious, the person you caught looking at you may see it as something silly. While it may be entirely OK with you for someone else to consider something you do silly, at that moment of experiencing your own world so ecstatically, having the emotional view of someone else shoved into your mind is the mental equivalent of a punch to the face. Holding the two sets of emotions at the same time regarding something precious to you is very unpleasant.
In the rare case of having one's world view shared by a stranger the experience of "invasion of privacy" will be significantly reduced. However, in general privacy is a value because one cannot assume that strangers out there in the street share one's view of life or share the understanding of the meaning of one's actions.

Even if one has a fiercely independent mind, sharing one's emotions about a value (like being in love) with someone who would not understand it (or even ridicule it) would be a very unpleasant experience simply because of experiencing colliding emotions simultaneously.

You may ask further, why would anyone consider the experience of someone else? So what if I spotted this person looking at me - do I have to think about their expression? The answer is; yes, we do. We do this automatically.
We don't have to think further of the meaning of the expression we saw, but the initial understanding of what it stands for happens automatically in our subconscious.

Privacy is a value because we can act and pursue our values knowing that our experience will not be disturbed by foreign elements.

This remains true for wanting privacy with someone else. A couple having sex, for example, ideally share each others world perfectly. Knowing what the other is experiencing is a celebration of one's own experience - an enhancement of it. But if a group of strangers were to gather around in a stadium-like arrangement watching the act, that would introduce a foreign element. Those strangers can never possibly share the mutual understanding the couple has. The content of the crowd's mind is a foreign element that interferes with the concentration on the mind of the partner.

So... does it make sense to share your vulnerable moments and your precious experiences only with your close friends or those you trust would understand it? Yes, it does. Does honesty requires that one broadcasts everything openly to all? It most certainly does not. Honesty as a virtue has its context - and the context is a selfish pursuit of one's values.

In light of all of this, I find two more related topics interesting to analyze.

One is artists - especially of the performing arts. Art, unlike other professions, involves an open expression of the artist's emotions, view of life and personality. One can dance or perform mechanically, but to make it good one must open up and express fully one's emotions.
In the performing arts the dancer or actor must do it in front of a live audience. There is no privacy shielding one's inner world from others, save the fact that the setting is such that everyone expects the performer to act this way, and one is necessarily aware that others are watching their actions. I think a good dancer/ actor must therefore have the following two components: 1. The ability to maintain focus on their inner world despite a watching audience. 2. A positive view, as a whole, of the audience.
Without a recognition that somebody out there understands what the performer is doing and can admire it, there would be no motivation to "open up" and offer what one has inside to the world.

Second is pornography. In writing this piece I've come across the question of how come the people who play porn have no problem with the lack of privacy in having sex? The answer is, I believe, that they seek intimacy with a collective, based on a very shallow level of values. When a couple requires privacy it's because they want to guard the mutual understanding that they have about each other, and they want to be admired for those things they understand about each other. When one is having sex with a stranger for all to see - one has no understanding with a partner. Instead what they seek is admiration from a collective - being wanted by an abstraction represented by an unknown collective - based on the value of their physical appearance. They might even project on the crowd whatever values they want to be had for, but there is no need for privacy because in this sort of sex there is nothing to guard. In fact, if somebody shows up that knows the porn star well, that might be what they would want to guard themselves against, because that, ironically, threatens the abstract sexual relationship with people "out there".


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Friday, March 5, 2010

Modern art, Religion and self-esteem

I will start with an interesting quote from Juliette Aristides's book, "Classical Painting Atelier", where she expresses her belief that modern art is rooted in a view of man as meaningless in a vast universe while art of the Renaissance was rooted in the belief that man is significant and eternal:

"In previous eras, artistic production was colored by the subtext that human beings, as children of God, have divine origins and that our existence is not transitory but eternal. This belief provided not only hope for the future, but the deep assurance of the intrinsic value of a human life. Artists reflected this vision of reality in their artwork, which enabled them to glimpse beauty in the face of tragedy and to portray monumental views of human life.
This is why Sandro Botticelli could paint his ethereal goddesses, revealing a reality only hinted at in the world as the black plague ravaged Europe.

The postmodern skeptic, faced with an unflinchingly pragmatic and scientific worldview, has no hope of an eternal future. Humanity, crawling out of the primordial soup, living briefly, and, returning to the mud, wrestles with a cosmic insignificance that is reflected in the art of our time. Beautiful figure paintings look hopelessly naive and outmoded in many art circles precisely because they no longer represent the predominating beliefs of the artistic and intellectual elite - the end of man is not glory but dust. Thus the art of the modern epoch has been largely nonrepresentational, characterized by a marred, earthbound, fragmented view of the human being. Beauty, eternity, and truth seem to have faded into a bygone era."

I find this quote to be a very interesting, and a largely true analysis, identifying the nature of art as stemming from the artist's view of the nature of the universe and man's place in it - from the artist's metaphysics.
I applaud Juliette's identification of the role of philosophy in art and explaining it so eloquently, but I am also glad to offer this correction to the (understandable) mistakes.
It is precisely the opposite: logic - which allowed great art to exist, when the terms are well defined.

It is not religion that provided the positive influence - the idea that a mystic belief in eternal life was responsible for all the good, while the so called ruthless "logic" and "scientific method" of our age has made men "disillusioned" with human grandeur is incorrect. This is what I wish to explain in this post.

For starters, it is not the length of our lives, nor facing the fact of their end that makes men glorious or insignificant. It is religion that has made men search for significance in the impossible - in that which is NOT man's nature that is responsible for this idea that eternal life is a condition for significance. It is precisely religion that has made men attempt to calculate their worth by eyes outside their own body - by how much 'the universe" "cares" for them, by how physically big they are compared to something... something which is not them. It is religion that teaches men to feel small and to be humble - not beautiful and proud.

A view of humans as "the children of god" is a twisted compliment. First, religion teaches men to seek significance outside themselves, bowing down, being humble before a great being - then they allow them a glimpse of self-esteem by being the creation of this superior being. Stomp them down, then offer them significance by allowing them to serve you.

It is reason - as an idea - as an identified method of how man gains knowledge and power over reality that has boosted men's self esteem - that made them feel big, important, potent. That has taught them to judge their worth through their own eyes - not through the eyes of some eternal, superior, impossible being.

The idea of "logic" she is presenting is the idea of modern philosophy, specifically Emmanuel Kant's idea of logic. According to him logic amounts to the recognition that man's senses distort reality and that we are incapable of knowledge. This view, which is total skepticism, may be non-religious, but it is just as devoid of values, just as belittling to human existence as religion is (or even more), because it tells men, in effect, that they are powerless to know anything, except that they can know nothing.

It is proper logic, discovered by Aristotle, preserved and revived through history that is responsible for any beauty people saw in human existence.
A creature, crawling with fear before an unknowable universe cannot feel beautiful or regard other human beings as beautiful.
It is only a being equipped with the power to know that can feel confident, that can use this confidence to wander into mystical paths, trying to bring their power of cognition into those realms - still, it is not mysticism that is responsible for their sense of confidence, but the idea that they are capable of knowing - of understanding the universe, and as a result capable of survival, success, enjoyment, values.

Philosophically, it is indeed this view of man as little and insignificant that has brought forth modern art. Accepting the view that virtue consists of recognizing their cognitive impotency - they present their distorted paintings as if they were a source of pride. Psychologically, these paintings are the cry of men desperate for self esteem and a sense of importance and personal identity, which they seek by screaming at the world that no one can know anything, that they are special because they recognize it and manage to present "nothingness" better than anyone else.
Indeed, they do present human "nothingness" better than anyone else, though that is hardly a compliment.

Lastly, Aristides mentions that human life has "intrinsic value". This, is again a mistaken view stemming from religion. To whom would human life be "of value"? The only answer according to religion is "god" or "the universe". However, those entities are not conscious. "The universe" does not value. Only human beings do. And indeed, to each human being individually, life, when the conditions allow happiness, are worth living. The value, however, is not intrinsic.
Well, a religion mind thinks, "if human beings are not important to god or to the universe - how can they be important?". "If human life has no such intrinsic value- how can anyone view them as significant at all?"

The answer is made possible by self-esteem, which is supported by logic. What makes human life worth living - what makes them a value to any particular individual? It is priceless moments of enjoyment - it is a moment of feeling pride at one's own creation, moments of having a great laugh or admiring a friend or enjoying the admiration of a lover; it is times of resting at one's home or walking outside and thinking that the world is wonderful - it is everything good that is possible for us to experience.

This good is made possible by our power to know, and, as a result; to create, judge and appreciate that which is around us.
Philosophically - the main idea is whether we, as human beings, have the power to know or not. Psychologically, this translate to a feeling of self esteem or its lack. In art, this translates into beautiful figures or corrupt and ugly ones (or to the total decay or random shapes).


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Thursday, February 18, 2010

What is Selfishness?

Before I get into what selfishness is I want to briefly answer - why is it important to know what is selfishness and what is not?
The reason is that selfishness is a fundamental principle - whom are you live for - for yourself or for others, and what does it even mean to live for yourself? The answer to these questions can determine the course of your life, the kind of actions you take and the emotional reward you ultimately receive from your life.
Secondly, selfishness is an ethical issue. If one misidentifies what selfishness is, one can experience unearned guilt or live a life which is not as good as one could have.

The common notion of selfishness is that of a person who lacks any concern for the values of others, someone who does not value other people, does not value fairness, justice, or does not see the need to return a value for a value. It is someone who always wants to get "favors" but at the same time cannot see why anyone would bother them asking for something in return. They can think of no good reason why they should not be served by others, for no benefit to those others whatsoever. Someone who exploits others at the blink of an eye and can care for nothing but their own ends.
This view of 'selfishnes' is lamped together with any kind of behavior that puts one's own pleasure before the pleasure of others, creating a devastating "package deal".

The person who kills and steals and the person who produces and earns are considered as having the same moral quality, since they both do it to promote their own ends.

Is it any wonder, then, that people condemn selfishness - and is it any wonder that so many people feel guilty for any kind of happiness or enjoyment they pursue for themselves, not for others?

The fault here is in the basic understanding of what selfishness is, and in replacing "lack of value for human life" with "selfishness".

One of Ayn Rand's greatest achievements was her identification of the true meaning of "selfishness". It redeemed morality, it created the basis on which people could be happy. It identified a concept which allows men to experience a moral sense of life, to be the hero of their own movie and at the same time pursue their own life and happiness. It allowed men to stand proud beside their achievements instead of apologizing for them - it allowed men to have self-esteem and to regard themselves as worthy of pleasure.

So let us start with basic questions and get deeper into the concept of "selfishness" to get a clear understanding of what it IS.

A selfish man is one who acts for his own sake - one whose actions are directed to benefit oneself. I would quickly summarize it by: "I am doing this for me".
This, however, is not as simple as it sounds. What constitutes doing something "for yourself"? Is it gratification of emotions, regardless of their source? Is it pursuit of some ends, regardless of their nature? Is a man driven by chronic anxiety, trying to destroy other people's happiness a "selfish bastard"?
The answer is not as simple as it first appears to be. To understand what it means to "do something for yourself" we need to know what constitutes an objective benefit to someone.
If one is to be the beneficiary of one's own actions, one must first know what constitutes "benefit".
If one has no idea what is good for oneself, then one's actions cannot logically be selfish, since "I am doing this for me" is empty of meaning if one has no idea if that action is good for one or not.

Many regard selfishness as acting for the gratification of one's emotions. There is some truth to that, but only given the right context.

The only meaning life has, the only thing that makes life worthwhile, that rewards us for living - is pleasurable emotions, like love, happiness, pride and so on. The selfish man indeed then goes after these positive emotions and the gratification of other emotions. Putting anything else above the achievement of one's happiness is not selfish - because by the nature of our body and mind, the only benefit we have for anything in life is positive emotions.
This is the key to what "selfishness" is. The ultimate benefit, by our nature, is pleasurable emotions. Pursuing the only thing which is, by our nature, rewarding, is therefore the essence of selfishness.

This however, does not mean that "anything goes", that whatever emotions one happens to gratify are a selfish action. If a man feels chronic anxiety and jealousy and acts to gratify his need for destruction he is most definitely not selfish because he does not put his happiness as his highest goal. He rather lets whatever petty emotions and destructive premises he has take over his life, motivation and actions. He gives up on happiness entirely. He gives up self esteem. He gives up thinking and trying to decide what would be the best course of action. He replaces all of this with the ease of drifting on whatever emotions happen to come his way and the satisfaction and relief of jealousy and self-doubt.

Selfishness, is actually demanding. Because happiness is demanding.

Consider another example: someone who has adopted the idea of altruism as an ideal and feels a sense of satisfaction every time they sacrifice something for the sake of someone else. For example, they work for months saving up to buy something they want very much, and end up giving it to the son of their friends who happen to come over for a visit, because he really wants it. They feel pain for the loss of the item, but a feeling of satisfaction from "doing the right thing". Is that a selfish action, since they acted to gain satisfaction?
No, because to be selfish means to actually ACT on the principle of doing that which is the best for one's life. The emotion is nothing but an expression of a subconsciously accepted altruism. If one acts to satisfy it one surrenders fully to altruism, and most definitely does NOT act selfishly. Selfishness is not satisfaction of emotions regardless of their cause - selfishness is satisfying one's emotions which are validated to be "on the right track".

So now how does one measure what "the right track" is? Is it just a matter of arbitrary opinion of what one "should do"? No. Recall that in essence selfishness is acting to achieve pleasurable emotions - the best possible to you. Not everything will achieve a feeling of happiness, not everything achieves self esteem, which is a requirement of happiness.

It follows then that a selfish man follows, to the best of his knowledge, the principles which would lead to his happiness and that he does not surrender to any "temptation" that could endanger his happiness.

Let us look at a few examples.

Suppose one is blamed that one is bad for wanting to keep something one values all to oneself. One is told that one should share. One may, out of good faith in people, think that one may indeed be doing something wrong and one is facing a danger of losing friends or the appreciation of the people who bring up the accusation. Here one faces a decision: Will one bypass one's judgment and follow that of others - should one give up that value based on the judgment of others that it is the right thing to do, or should one act based on one's own conclusions? These two are not equal, not both are selfish.
If one decides to take others on their word, one gives up one's judgment and replaces it with others'. Not only that, but one actually gives up one's material goods. the dominant feeling one can expect from such a choice is a sense of loss of control. If it is not one's mind leading one's decisions - whose mind is it? Can one feel secure sitting in a car driven by someone else?
The second choice may be painful because it involves the loss of some people's approval - but one is making a selfish choice here, because acting based on one's own conclusions, not those of others, is a requirement of life and because one chooses to keep material values one has earned. In time one may discover what mistake those people made in demanding a sacrifice and cease to feel a sense of loss over their withdrawn approval.
One's own approval of oneself must always be a primary and come before others' approval if one is to be happy. Whenever one acts on this principle, one is acting selfishly because one is putting one's happiness and mental health above all else.

Or how about a case in which no other people are involved - just one man and his mind. One can be selfish or non-selfish even living completely alone. Suppose one day one experiences an emotion one considers to be a sign of someone lame of bad. It could be a feeling of helplessness, frustration, jealousy, fear and so on. One faces a choice here: To recognize the existence of the emotion, or to try to pretend as if the emotion never existed. No other people are involved in such a decision, yet only one path is selfish.
Why? Because only one path puts one's happiness above all else.
If one tries to pretend that one did not feel what one felt, one seals in the judgment of being bad, or not as good as one had expected. The judgment may be entirely unjustified or based on wrong premises, but if one never looks into it one can never rectify the situation.
Choosing to run away from the situation may alleviate one's immediate fear, but it is not a selfish choice since it does not put one's happiness above all else. In fact running away is a choice that seals in self-doubt.

This is the reason I call my blog "psychology of selfishness"; the central theme of the blog is how to live in a selfish way: in a way that puts your own happiness above all else.

Here is another common choice we face in life: To think or not to think? In any given situation one has the choice to use one's mind to seek the truth or to use one's mind in a different way. For example, on a desert island one can choose to put effort into thinking how to improve one's life, comfort and chances of survival and rescue or one can choose to let self pity take over, hide behind a rock and wait for death.
In modern society one can choose to discover the truth in every subject or to try to escape any recognition of failure. To close one's eyes and try to pretend that bad things are not happening. The selfish choice here, again, is one that puts one's happiness and one's life above all else - the choice to think. Because only by thinking and having knowledge, correct knowledge, can one act in an efficient way that actually promotes one's goals and life. Choosing not to think may provide a temporary escape but the price is a sense of loss of control, lack of self esteem and ultimately losing material property as well (or never gaining it).

The selfish is acting to achieve that which is good for you. We may make mistakes identifying it in specific situations, but so long as one holds the right principles and acts by them, one is selfish.

Take the case of Gail Wynand from Ayn Rand's book "The fountainhead". Gail was wrong on choosing the principle by which he lived. Gail thought he was acting in his self-interest by living the way he did, but despite his thought he lived an unselfish life and he was not happy.
Growing up, Gail was a poor boy who worked at "dirty", low-level jobs receiving orders from people which were morally and intellectually inferior to him. Gail grew up to discover that many honest people do not survive in the world. He was furious that evil wins, and decided to let that become the ruling idea in his life. He was so focused on the injustice that he let go of every personal desire to focus only on one: Never to receive another order from a low life. Never to have less power than the others. He became the owner of a tabloid whose content he despised but which brought him a lot of money and power. His life's creation was one which he despised and he worked to give others what they please, but never what Gail Wynand pleased.
Gail's mistake was not an error in an application of a principle, but error in the entire principle. The choice he made as a teenager was to base his life's goal not in his happiness, but in preventing evil from having financial superiority over him. It is an honest mistake, and one can easily understand how an honest man might feel so angry at the world - but when he made that anger into the ruling factor of his life he made his relation to other men the ruling idea and motivation of his life. He was no longer living for himself and indeed he spent his entire career writing things that pleased others.
This example shows that it is not enough to think that one is acting in one's best interest. To be selfish one must actually adopt and live by principles that place one's happiness above all else.

The conventional view of selfishness is wrong. Those people who have no grasp of the value of other people have a psychological problem. The "give me give me give me" mentality and "how rude, you expect something back?" is not the psychology of a selfish person but rather of an unhappy individual who receives no authentic enjoyment from the things he or she have. Those who are capable of understanding the values of others (that something can be precious to someone else) are those who experience such value themselves toward the things they love.
By equating this mentality with any desire to enjoy that which one has earned, one is sentencing oneself to a lifetime of guilt.
By saying that "everyone is selfish" because they act to gratify their emotions, one ends up ignoring the fact that happiness has specific requirements and demands.

"Selfishness" means to act by the principle by which your actions are directed to benefit you, to make you happy. It means that the principles by which you lead your life place nothing above your happiness.

Being selfish is both demanding, moral and good for you.

Recommended reading (on which my writing is based on, or describes): "The virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand (specifically the article "Isn't everyone selfish" from that book) and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
Related article: Selfishness in relationships from my blog.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Good looks as a rational value

Is it shallow to care how one looks in the eyes of others? Is it a sign of some psychological weakness?

The problem is in the question itself. The action, or intention itself - is neither good nor bad - it depends on the wider context of an individual's psychology.

Some use good looks as a way to achieve "social stature" which they use as a replacement for self esteem. If you've ever wondered about the frantic way some people try to sell their life as a success story of a top model on social sites like Facebook, the above, in my opinion, is the reason.

However there are those who take pleasure openly in being aesthetically valued and enjoyed by others.
For them being appreciated for their looks, dressing up in the morning to welcome a world worth showing one's beauty to - is a pursuit of a rational value.

The appearance of a human being can communicate beauty which can not be found in nature and not in the most sensational sunset: It is beauty of character.
A proud way of standing, a hidden smile ready to bloom for the right occasion are a sight to enjoy for every man with a positive feeling about people and life.

A physical beauty to match a beautiful character reflects spiritual perfection in physical form and integrates them (as I will explain later in more detail). This integration between the spiritual and the physical is a cognitive need that comes from the nature of our mind as holding knowledge abstractly.

In what way can we "see" nobility, or pride? Only in physical, material, tangible things like facial expressions, body language and - body structure and facial features.
Spirituality has no visibility except through the material.
You can see this need to express spiritual perfection through physical perfection in art, where heroes have perfect proportions in addition to the right body language and expression. [See example]

Not every element in one's physical appearance reflects on one's character. If one is tough and truthful, it will reflect in one's habitual way of holding one's facial muscles. If one is proud and confident, it will show in one's manner of standing and walking. Obesity, in many cases, is an expression of psychological stress. But something like a 90-60-90 figure vs. a 80-70-90 figure (less feminine looking) reflects no spiritual trait.
It still remains, however, that physical beauty, even of the kind that does not reflect traits of character, creates an integration of the spiritual and physical in the viewer's mind, as can be seen in art.

Appreciation, in general, from others one appreciates is a rational value, even a psychological need. If one considers oneself worthy of appreciation then getting that appreciation from others is a tremendous value and pleasure.
The human mind is a powerful thing, when others are logical; their opinions mirror our own understanding of reality.
Self-esteem is a deep psychological need and a value one cannot live without. When our own recognition of our worth and achievements is reflected to us by others, we experience heightened awareness of the reality of our own value, which is very pleasurable.

Allowing others to enjoy one's physical beauty compliments that need (for people of self-esteem).

Consider the wonderful things physical beauty allows us to celebrate:
The romantic atmosphere of a date in which both look phenomenal (especially the woman) is largely due to the declaration that beauty is a great way to celebrate and enhance finding each other valuable.
When a woman takes special care to dress up for a date she is implicitly communicating to her partner that she sees him as a value and because of that getting his appreciation and enjoyment from her looks is a value to her - something she is willing to put the time into.

Investing in one's look on every day basis is a way to celebrate a world in which one is worthy of being seen and enjoyed by others. It is a reflection of seeing the world as good - as a place inhabited by good people (perhaps not all, or even many - but it at least expresses the recognition that some exist).

Notice that when one views the world as bad and people as evil one looses the desire to look good (I am talking about a rational person here, not about those who want to look good to win a competition with their friends).

Ever wondered why some women like shopping so much? Here is why: A piece of clothing that compliments one's figure and matches a certain event or atmosphere allows one to experience how one would like to be seen, evaluated and experienced by someone else in a certain occasion.

Clothes are like a piece of a fantasy, half real, stored in one's closet for future use. Women take pleasure in storing such fantasies in their closet because that makes the fantasies half real - a promise for an enjoyable future.
For example, buying a dress that emphasizes a woman's feminine features holds the romantic fantasy of a magical evening out with someone she admires. An elegant looking suit is a way to celebrate one's image as a good worker, appreciated as such by others, and so on.

The same is true for men, but more so for women because in romantic relationships women are the ones being pursued (although, this is another topic which I will leave for another time).

And in conclusion, take Will Smith's words on the value of good looks:


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Monday, February 1, 2010

Conformity as an enemy of self-esteem

Conformity is the process by which one adjusts one's behavior, values and beliefs to those which one holds as acceptable by other people.

If one observes a child or an adult trying to conform, one can see that the underlying emotion in their behavior is fear and a sense of loss of control.
They are driven by fear to say certain "acceptable" things that will make them feel that they belong. They are always in a pursuit of pleasing some external authority and never find the serenity of self-approval and self-appreciation.

Conformity is not just a harmless habit, which comes down to nothing more than making sure to wear the right brand of jeans and to exhibit the right kind of opinions and interests - these are merely the symptoms, the external manifestations, of a deep spiritual, psychological problem.

Conformity is a damaging idea that targets nothing short of an individual's entire spiritual life: One's self-esteem, sense of personal identity, enjoyment of values and the possibility of any fulfilling relationship.

Most parents not realizing this, encourage their children to conform, thinking that "a child needs to have friends", "a child needs to learn to be socially acceptable to succeed in this world".
Little do they know that they ensure that if the child has any friends by this method, there is nothing left but an empty puppet to enjoy them.
If an individual cannot enjoy friends, what's the point of having them? But the damage goes much deeper and eliminates not just one's ability to enjoy friends, but one's ability to enjoy - anything.

Teaching a child that conformity is good does not take a full blown indoctrination - it can be done by hints. For example, if a child expresses concern that he is "not like the other kids" in some regard, the parent can either ensure him that being himself is the good, or the parent can help the child be like the others, in which case, the parent would be implicitly teaching the child that this is the right course of action.
Parents can teach a kid "not to make a fas" about his or her personal emotions in order to maintain a socially acceptable image, or they can teach them that the child's inner life matters more than social appearance by showing such preference themselves.
Then, parents also teach their kids how to judge themselves by showing what they themselves appreciate about what the child does. If parents show no appreciation for a child's independent thinking and creativity, but show great pleasure when he brings 5 friends home - what kind of lesson are they teaching their kid?

When one accepts conformity, one accepts a standard by which to judge oneself - one attempts to switch the role of the judge to other people. However, by the nature of SELF-esteem, that is not possible. One's subconscious then attempts to evaluate one's worth by how well one considers oneself socially acceptable, how much and how many people like him or her, how comfortable people feel around him, how much they would appreciate his jokes, how well he falls under what people consider "the norm".
One turns oneself into an empty vessel whose worth is measured by how well one can read the social circumstances and adjust to be liked and to fit the social standards. Being an "outsider", different, someone who is not socially accepted by others creates, under this standard, a feeling of inadequacy, guilt and self-doubt. One thinks "if others don't like me, something must be wrong with me".

Externally, one picks one's clothes by the impression they make on others, not by one's own preference (which is never allowed to develop). One attempts to get friends that are "cool" - not ones that one has personal interest in (personal interests are eliminated over time in favor of the "acceptable" ones). If other people in one's environment have a girlfriend or a boyfriend one feels compelled to get one too, otherwise one feels inadequate - lacking worth. If other people have a certain amount of income or lifestyle, one tries to "live up" to it.

Internally, one gradually loses sense of personal identity and loses touch with one's values (depending to what extent one accept conformity as valid). It is not possible, under the emotional pressure of trying to pretend to be someone one's not, to continue to feel affection for one's values. One's values become worthless if they are outside social acceptances.
For example, if one has a socially unacceptable hobby (say, a guy that loves the ballet), one feels that to be any good, one must denounce it to fit into what is socially acceptable. If one finds certain things funny, but others do not - one attempts to change one's sense of humor.
It is not merely approval in the eyes of others a conformist seeks - but approval in one's own eyes by changing who one is.
It is in one's own mind that one feels inadequate if one fails to be "like the other kids". Approval from others becomes not a nice emotional bonus, but a pathological need.

However, achieving approval does not solve the chronic self-doubt. Even the most popular kid in the class is still driven by chronic fear, even more than others who are less popular. Why is that so? The reason is that conformity undercuts self-esteem, regardless of how well one becomes socially accepted by others.

Imagine you were asked to walk on an invisible bridge above an abyss - would you feel any better if 100 people told you the bridge is there once you make the first step? You reach down and feel nothing, you try to knock on it but nothing shows any resistance nor makes a sound. The same thing works in regard to self-esteem. When using conformity as a standard one can only rely on others to know that one is worth something. One has no personal evidence of it - no achievement (they are all discarded in favor of social acceptance), no spiritual traits one considers admirable (they are all discarded), and one learns that one cannot rely on oneself to protect one's values on the fly. A kid that accepts conformity may discover one day, to his or her amazement, that they threw away a favorite toy in the blink of an eye to prove to someone that they are "cool".

One learns that one is not trustworthy to maintain one's life, to achieve things or to protect what matters to one.
Even the most popular kid in class (or in adult life) experiences this - and the more popular they are the more detached from personal values they become.
The feeling of having one's personal identity disappear in the presence of others creates a chronic dread from the company of people, especially public speaking and makes one very hostile to independent people. It also prevents one from developing intimate relationships because one always sees others as something to "please", not as a real person.
Healthy relationships are built on mutual appreciation. One cannot enjoy appreciation nor give it if one gives up personal identity and a standard of values.

Since conformity is subconscious and automated, one may not even realize why one is experiencing such emotions, but only that, one feels tremendous pressure to act in a way others would approve of.

It could be limited to a feeling of pressure to smile to others and act pleasant and "normal", it could go deeper into a need to make one's jokes fit that which is "conventional" or in severe cases, an individual loses all personal identity and becomes a bitter clone of "the perfect social man" (in which case, not accidentally, they are preoccupied preaching acceptance of others, altruism and compassion and take every opportunity to crusade and blame anyone who is not "social" as a way to rationalize their emotional situation).

To concretize better how conformity is a psychological problem, let's contrast it to healthy self-esteem. How can one maintain stable self-esteem?
Self esteem comes from staying loyal to one's standard of judging people and of having one's standard grounded in reality.
For example, if one notices while growing up that lies and dishonesty are disastrous to human beings and one concludes that honesty is a virtue - then one clings to it no matter what. Suppose some person comes along and says "telling the truth is for suckers. The cool ones are those who can deceive others and get what they want from them" - then one does not surrender one's value of honesty in favor of living up to the other person's standard. If one does this consistently, one maintains healthy SELF ESTEEM - in the full sense of the words, and this feeling of serenity and confidence is always present in one's mind regardless of the circumstances or what other people think of one.

One gains self esteem from living up to one's ethical values and placing nothing above one's own judgement of what those values should be, based on one's experiences and knowledge. The hallmark of self esteem is selfishness - by which I don't mean the conventional term for "selfishness" as exploitation, but someone who always acts for his or her own benefit - in every second of the day one places nothing above one's own enjoyment (long and short term).

The trouble with conformity is that it becomes, after childhood, a subconscious, automatic way of thinking and feeling. One may act in ways that do not seem to be in pursuit of one's happiness, but to satisfy some other subconscious need. If one accepts the idea of conformity even for a limited time in childhood, then if left unchecked one is likely to suffer some automatic reactions relating to conformity as an adult.

The way to solve it, as with anything else, is to develop self awareness. To become aware of one's feelings and subconscious thoughts and then to correct them time and time again (if they are in need of correction). It is also important to go back to childhood memories and remember cases in which conformity was an issue. Thinking back to such cases and realizing what would have been the right course of action and the right response is another step in reprogramming your subconscious with the right values and standard.

Self-esteem is not automatic. It requires effort, judgment, refusal to compromise on one's values - but the result is a sense of serenity which is at the base of happiness and enjoyment of life.


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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reason and Motive - what is the difference?

Reason and motive are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct things.

A murderer driven by jealousy and rage has a motive: To cause harm to what he conceives as the source of his pain: his cheating wife. He is driven by his emotions to take an irrational action which he does not validate with logic (though he could exercise self-control and do that). His motive is jealousy, his reason? none.

If I take an umbrella on a sunny day my reason may be that the weather forecast said it would rain later in the day. In this case my decision is conscious and based on facts I have considered. My motive? the automatic distant emotion arising from the thought of being wet and having to run around if I get stuck in the rain without an umbrella. Both the reason and the motive are: not to get wet, but the reason is the conscious thought and the motive is the accompanying emotion.

If I rob a bank and force everyone to stay on the floor my reason is that if they are not on the floor they would be in a better position to resists me or to activate the alarm. The action of robbing a bank may be irrational, but the immediate decision to force people to stay on the floor is grounded in a conscious decision guided by facts. The reason to force people to stay on the floor, therefore, is to prevent resistance.

If I heard a speech I like a lot and feel an urge to stand up and applaud - I have a motive: A desire to express appreciation of something and to repay the wonderful individual who gave the speech. I may not be aware of why I feel an urge to stand up and applaud - but doing so has a motive. If, additionally, I am aware of why I want to applaud and the benefit it may bring me - then I stand up and act on it - it also becomes my reason for the action.

In other words: motive is referring to the emotional propelling force for an action while reason is referring to the conscious thinking process and conscious goal behind an action.

Every action has a motive, even if one is not aware of that motive; we cannot act without an emotion motivating an action; but not all actions have a reason. When someone is taking an action based on conscious thinking, the reason and the motive for it become two sides of the same coin (which is incidentally why "reason" and "motive" are often used interchangeably).
The question: "why did you do it?" is one, but its answer can be one of three: A reason (with a motive), a motive without a reason, or something which is entirely beyond a man's control (like an act of sheer insanity, or involuntary physical movement; neither of which have a reason nor a motive).

Let me break it down a bit more to make it clear: A reason necessarily comes with a motive and they are two sides of the same coin. How so? a conscious value judgement (deciding something is good for me or bad for me) is always coupled with an emotion. The emotion then serves as a motivation. For example: Why do I pursue a productive activity such as writing? The reason is a conscious decision to make money while satisfying a psychological need of self-esteem. I know that doing a productive activity is good for my life and I consciously decide to do it for this reason. The motivation is the emotion resulting from the subconscious recognition that productive activity has a positive effect on my life.
If my subconscious judgment, however, is not in line with my conscious thoughts then I would not be motivated to take the action. It is only to the extent that the subconscious is "persuaded" of the validity of the conscious value judgement that one can be motivated to take the action, and then the reason and the motive become one (or rather, two sides of the same thing).

Some may rationalize an action to try to provide a false reason for an action which actually had a different motive, in which case, the reason is false and the motive is real. For example: Say a guy is too shy to make a pass at a girl he likes. One day he decides to go to her house to talk. He tells the girl, and tries to convince himself that he went there to tell her that some class has been canceled, to save her time, but in fact that was not the reason he went there at all: He goes there to try to establish a relationship. In this case the so called "reason" is a rationalization. The motive is the real one and the action, in fact, has no reason, since the guy never made a conscious decision to make a pass at the girl.
If he did, in fact, tell himself in the privacy of his own mind that he is going there to try to start a relationship then it becomes his reason for going there, even if he hides it from others.

The reason for an action is not something that is always kept conscious. As I am writing this post, for example, I do not consciously think, at every moment, of the goal of writing it. The recognition of the goal stays in the background, as a thought and emotion. This does not mean that the action only has a motive but not a reason, just as one can know that 2+2=4 ALL the time, even though one rarely thinks about it. Knowing something consciously does not mean one constantly has to think about it. But for an action to have a reason the goal must be identified prior to the action. In many cases the reason is so well automatized one rarely stops to think about it. Why do you take your wallet when you go out? The reason is clear: to be able to buy whatever is necessary to function and enjoy the day (like a bus ticket, food coffee etc'). The reason is so clear one rarely stops to think of this consciously. Instead one just makes sure to take one's wallet before going out. This action does have a reason (and not just a motive) even though one does not stop to conscious reconsider the goal every single time.
It is enough that one is aware of the goal (of the value judgement) to make it a reason.

A motive can be good or bad, based on right ideas or wrong ideas. One can be motivated by an unrecognized desire for justice or by a desire to destroy out of envy. In either case, it is always better for one to be aware of the motive for an action and make a conscious decision about it, to the best of one's ability.

My goals in writing this blog

Writing this blog is not an easy task, but it is very satisfying.

My philosophy of writing about anything is to make it ASAP: As simple as possible. True understanding is the ability to break a complex subject into its simple elements. To connect an abstract idea to concrete cases in reality, and to bring the light-full feeling of clarity to every subject I write about.

To achieve this I demand of myself the strictest use of logic. I look at all my experiences, what they have in common and draw my conclusions based on them. Then I take those conclusions and check against all cases again, trying to see if there are some cases which suggest that the conclusions are incorrect or missing something. This process is called "integration" of knowledge (as some of your know).

Then, it is not enough to reach conclusions. I am passionate about presenting them in a way that makes it easy to understand them. I put myself in the shoes of someone with complete ignorance of the subject (usually, myself before I ever thought of those ideas) and aim my writing to explain it to that individual in the right order, while keeping in mind that the value the article holds needs to be communicated implicitly as well. I never expect a reader to take me on faith regarding the value of what I am about to write about: I am always aware that such value needs to be communicated right from the start of a piece.
It is not a gimmick to attract audience - as some writers see it, but an essential part of writing properly.

I love writing this blog; I love the times of brain wrecking effort that goes into understanding new subjects, I love thinking of good ways to break down and present a subject.
I love writing things that can help people change their life for the better, and indeed many of the posts are aimed at challenging misconceptions and psychological problems that undercut happiness.
I get tremendous satisfaction knowing something I write has helped someone become more motivated to improve their lives or has given them something meaningful to think about.

I write my blog for all these reasons; for the selfish satisfaction I get from gaining knowledge and doing a good job providing it to others.

However, these are not ends in themselves: The satisfaction I get from writing is not enough to motivate me to write this blog, nor to spend the hours of mental effort to produce high quality articles. I write to eventually make money. This is why I have a donation option. I would therefore appreciate if you donate even a small amount, just to show your support and appreciation. Consider it as if you were hiring me to write more: it is exactly what it is.

This blog is not about sharing fun experiences from my daily life. It is not political activism. It is about improving people's emotional quality of life.
This requires abstract knowledge - discovering principles of psychology central to life.
Because of that, writing the blog is not a piece of cake. It is not something I can write effortlessly as sharing some daily experience with a friend. Writing a single piece takes days and hours, hours of sitting at the computer, thinking of every sentence and days (or even months) of thinking out the problem in my head. It is like writing a scientific journal.

I have plenty of topics I would like to write about, but, on a personal note, making not a single dime out of writing everything I have so far, despite the countless hours I have put into writing, I have lost the motivation to do the final editing, which is why you are seeing less content.

I therefore ask my readers to donate to keep the blog running and to get new content, if you find that the blog has the potential to add value to your life.

Thank you for being my reader and for any future contribution you might give.