A key to my ongoing recovery and quest for contentment is learning to live the life that’s right in front of me. To that end, I’m slowly learning how religious people use their respective God concepts to cope with life, such as it is. The anthropomorphic God of the religiously inclined is indeed an effective mental health solution. He (yes, with a capital “H”) provides quick relief from dissonance.
When things don’t go their way, people tap that source of relief by telling themselves, “This must be what He wants for me.” And just like that, they’ve hit their spiritual reset button; their soul and longings are back in check with reality. This simple way of living appears to work best for people of average-average intelligence – most people. This segment of the population glides through life by conforming to rules and social norms. Everything is either this or that, right or wrong, good or bad, legal or illegal. You go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, work with the goal of not having to work, have grand kids, and die – always in that order. Following “the rules” effectively makes that middle class narrative unfold like clockwork.
But for those of us who have a top-3 percent I.Q. (>130), living a simple life, one that works, is a constant uphill battle. The ability and innate desire to see nuance in everything leads us down an enriching, yet uncertain path. Having more choices means having more possible outcomes, and that hazy uncertainty sometimes obscures what we all hope for, that we can have the best of both worlds – family and civic life, and becoming an ever more enlightened global citizen. Right now, I’m struggling greatly, torn between those worlds. Yet I know it is possible to have both – to reach that apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. My Dad did it. My Professor did it. The evidence is that it is possible. A few weeks ago I was talking to a mid-20 something second-year medical student who is pursuing a career as a surgeon. We got on to the topic of balancing career and family. She told me about how she’s annoyed when she tells male surgeons of her career goals and they ask her the well don’t you want to have a family question. “It’s not an either- or- thing,” she said. And again, the evidence in her case doesn’t lie. Here at Mayo Clinic we have magnificent female surgeons who have families.
For me right now, that dissonance is coming from my propensity toward black and white thinking. I’ve come a long way. I can see myself doing it, and when I write these thoughts out, they seem even more nonsensical: I could save up $2,000 by this fall and either buy a car OR travel to Geneva to ride a bike around the particle accelerator at CERN. If I buy the car, I might seem less strange to potential dates and have a better chance at getting my emotional and physical needs met; if I take the trip, I could learn something and make connections that will advance my career as a science writer, greatly increasing my long-term earning potential. And should I bother dating anyone who thinks it’s weird that I’m a professional driver who doesn’t own a car? What if I choose going to CERN, and I meet the one other geek in the world who would travel that far just to ride a bike around a 17-mile circle, and we live happily ever after?
I have to remember my friend’s words and apply them to my own life. It’s not an either- or- thing. This is where spiritual development comes into play. After two years of meetings I finally met a sponsor who engages me at my level. He is a talented physician and diagnostician at Mayo Clinic. When he got sober, his peers elected him to be their clinical department chair. One day on our way home from a meeting, I revealed that I was still struggling with the thought that spiritual experiences amount to psychological feedback loops rooted in superstition and confirmation bias. Consider quantum mechanics, he said. “It’s a field where if, you think you understand it, that means you really don’t understand it.” He used the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal as an example. It posits that it is impossible to observe something without changing it. Whether it be a physicist trying to balance a lengthy equation to prove the existence of a new subatomic particle or a biologist recording chimpanzee behavior in the forest, the savvy observer knows that by watching something, they’ve become a part of it. Both animals and people know when they’re being watched. How? There may well be factors at play beyond our consciousness, but we don’t know.
And we don’t have to know, Dr. J keeps reminding me. “I don’t have to know why and how going to meetings works, I just know it does,” he says. Letting go of the need to ask “why” about everything has been a precursor to accepting a spiritual basis for living. He had to do it, and I’m beginning to do it. We don’t have to know how everything works, just that it does. We agreed on a scientific, mutually acceptable definition of God: He is all that about the universe and the way it works which we cannot or will not ever know. The inverse hypothesis works smoothly, too: He is not all that about the universe which we can and do know.
This is where the freaky part comes in. Recently, out of desperation to remain in house and home, I got a crappy job. I was so unhappy with it that it led me to relapse and I had to walk away from it. Though it was quite simple, I had this overwhelming sense that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I walked away and said a very simple prayer: “Please let me do something more meaningful.”
Not much more than a week later, I walked into Rochester Specialty Tours and was hired on the spot. It happened so quickly and easily, I was suspicious. I reminded myself to go with the flow. I don’t always have to ask why. In a strange and unexpected way, the new job is advancing my career as a medical writer. I didn’t recognize this the first day, but after a couple days, I opened my eyes and saw the answer to my prayer: I am doing something meaningful. I do more than just pick up clients at the train station. For the most part, people who use our shuttle service are coming to Rochester for medical care. Each person or group is a new opportunity to unleash my interview skills and find out their stories. For awhile, I was worried that the sociology and oral history skills I picked up in Nicholas Lemann’s Evidence & Inference course were rotting away. Not so, it seems, I found myself practicing what I was taught: pose one insightful question and then get out of the way – listen. The passengers open up to me about their entire life stories and basis for visiting the Clinic. When I tell them I’m a medical journalist, they open up even more. “Oh, have I ever got a story for you,” one lady told me yesterday. I should have saved her number.
A friend of mine recently posted a graphic on Instagram that says, “Some people are so poor, all they have is money.” That caught my eye, because right now I have no money and over $100,000 in debt, yet by beginning to recognize what I DO have right in front of me, I feel less poor than I have in a long time. Could that simple prayer have actually worked? I don’t know, and I don’t need to know.
Onward and Upward, Kirk Klocke