Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Self-Driving Cars, Rat Mazes, and Mindfulness, All in One Post

Self-driving cars used to be a thing of science fiction.  Depending on what websites you believe, they could be only months away.  It really is amazing to think about.  You could just hop in the car and tell it where you want to go.  Voila!  Your virtual chaufer will make it happen!  Despite the fact that there seem to be a few glitches left to work out, the technology is rapidly improving.  It won't be long until...

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Are they playing Sorry! in there or Parchisi?
I sure hate to bust those guys' collective bubble, but let me share a little secret with you.  The guys at Google and Uber and such?  They are way behind.  I've had a self-driving car for years.

Honestly I didn't buy the 2005 Accord because of the autonomous driving feature.  I didn't even know it had that option.  I discovered it quite by accident.  I left my house one day, heading to Target, and before I knew it I was on I-285 headed to the church.  I'm not sure how I got on 285.  It must be that the self-driving feature had engaged.

Not long after that, I was driving along when I realized I had absolutely no idea if the light I had just gone through was red or green.  I mean, there were cars stopped the other direction, I think.  And I don't make it a habit to run red lights.  But I had no clear memory of the color-state of the light when I went through it.  I can't be the only one this has happened to.

Ok, ok.  You got me.  The car wasn't driving itself.  Actually there's a really good scientific explanation for why I wound up on 285 and why I couldn't remember if the light was green.  It's the same reason you can't remember if you turned off the coffee pot before you left home (did you?).  It's the human brain, and it's scary.

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You are old like me if this makes you think of your brain.
Your brain is highly efficient.  When you first undertake a task--like driving to work--your brain is actively involved every step of the way.  You take everything in as you find your way.  If you keep doing the same thing, though, your brain decides it isn't worth all the effort of being fully awake during the trip.  So it begins building a subroutine all by itself.  Before too long, your brain is actually active only at the very beginning and very end of the subroutine.  The real scary is that when in the middle of that subroutine, your brain is about as active as it is when you are sleeping.  They proved this by monitoring brain activity in mice.  Here's a good summary.  I'll wait for you to watch it.

Welcome back!  If you're anything like me, that video scared the crap out of you.  For me, it's mostly scary because it made me realize how many things I do habitually, without even thinking about it.  I've come to realize that drinking Coke (which I discussed at length last week), is part addiction and part habit.  There are whole parts of my day that are governed by habit.  Every day I get out of bed, use the bathroom, let the dog out, make lunches for the kids, get their snacks together, get them out the door, watch Lisa drive them away, shut the door, head upstairs, brush my teeth, shave, .......  You get the point.  If I need to remember to do something out of the ordinary, I have to write myself a note for the morning, because I'll drop into that routine and run on autopilot.  And when Lisa asks me two hours later if I remembered to make a grooming appointment for the dog, I will, once again, have let her down.

Don't get me wrong.  This is sometimes helpful.  Subroutines make it possible for you to think about other things while you're driving.  Not that I've ever done that.  But there's a downside too.  Some of our habits are good...and some aren't so good.  Unfortunately your brain's super-efficiency blinds you to both.

It's exhausing to be mindful--to be really present for an entire day.  I'm not sure it's even healthy.  But it can be revealing.  Take one day, just a normal day, and really consider everything you do from beginning to end.  You might be surprised by what you find.  I did that one day, and it was eye-opening.

If you're like me (and who isn't), you'll probably find some pleasant surprises.  There will be some things you do that benefit other folks you didn't even know you did.  I discovered, for example, that I am reflexively helpful.  In a number of situations, without thinking, I jumped in to be of assistance.  "Good job, me!"

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If only I could smile like that...
But there are also some unpleasant surprises too.  I caught myself dismissing my kids too quickly, raising my voice at them and the dog, checking Facebook when I should have been working on this blog post...  (This reminds me that a few years ago I started writing down everything I ate on a little notecard each day, and I was shocked at how many snacks I ate.  I wasn't even hungry, y'all.  I just ate anyway.)

Last week I admitted to being a racist.  I don't hurl slurs, and I don't carry tiki torches.  But I benefit from a system of continued inequality.  And I have, from time to time, laughed at jokes grounded in racism.  The privilege I enjoy is profound.  The weird thing is that I hadn't seen it before, at least not that clearly.  Once I was attuned to racism, once I was looking for it, I saw it everywhere.  And once I saw it everywhere, I couldn't unsee it.  It seems that racism is one of those unpleasant surprises.

So it made sense to me when I was talking with a friend about this, and she said that one of the challenges of dealing with racism is that it is invisible to those who don't experience it.  Because I'm white and I have privilege, it is possible for me to go through life without even taking notice of the struggles of other races.  I can be completely blind.  For people without privilege, racism is a reality that cannot be ignored.  To put it another way, racism doesn't affect me except in the ways it benefits me (and because of human nature, I'm unlikely to notice the benefits unless I really stop to think).  I would be certain to notice it if it put me at a disadvantage every day of my life.

Racism in our society is like one of those habitual subroutines in the brain.  It's so common that we don't even realize it is a thing.  That scares me a lot more than getting half way to church before I realized I really meant to drive to the Chinese place up the street.

Another friend who often challenges me said he felt like my self-forgiveness at the end of my last post was a privileged position to take.  I can see how it might be, but I also know that it has been an important part of my journey.  He suggested I seek the forgiveness of those who have been impacted by my racism.

I didn't know what to do with that, really, but I took a shot at it one day last week.  I went to one such person and said, "I understand and see privilege.  I see how unjust it is.  Someone has suggested I seek forgiveness...and I don't even know how to do that.  So, how do I do that?"

In a very graceful answer, she said, "I don't think forgiveness is mine to give."  She went on to explain how she teaches her children that if they are sorry for something, they will act differently.  This resonated with me, because Lisa and I teach our children the exact same thing.  I couldn't tell you how many times I've said, "I'm sorry means I'll do better next time."

What does doing better look like?

It looks like starting conversations that black people can't start--solely because they are black.  It looks like making sure those conversations continue even when most everyone has forgotten about kneeling in the NFL.  It means fostering love for everyone in my children, helping them avoid hate, and making sure they see racism for what it is rather than allowing them to ignore it.  It means being respectful and mindful.

Being mindful.  I guess that brings me back to where I started.  The brains remarkable efficiency is an important tool in daily living.  But its ability to establish habits is a two-edged sword.  Habits can blind us to who we really are.  Mindfulness might just be a good way to introduce us to ourselves.

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