The pains and joys of being a geek with mental illness

I still don’t socialize much.  But that’s because I don’t feel like I need to.  Some of my best friends I can chat with over Facebook or the phone.  Besides, all some people want to chat about are mundane things like the weather or pointless gossip.  Conversations without any real intelligent substance really weigh on me.  They sap my energy and often aggravate me.  And the longer I’ve been out of school, the worse it gets.  Sure there were quite a few people who, when I went to school, thought education was for losers and being ignorant was cool.  But, good grief, now that I’m an adult those people are in the vast majority.  I was always told that more wisdom came with age.  Not necessarily so.  I know people in their sixties and seventies who are less mature and intelligent than some junior high kids.  It’s tiring and sad to see stupidity and ignorance being championed in my culture.  I see it in my daily life and I see it when I log onto the internet or watch my tv: ignorance is praised and wisdom is condemned.

Was it always this way that smart people were ostracized?  Is it this way in other cultures and times?  Since I’ve been out of the USA only once in my life, I really have no first hand experience with other cultures other than my own.  And in my culture, intelligence simply isn’t valued.  I have felt out of place among my own people and culture for as long as I can remember.  People thought it odd that my friends and I liked to talk about history, science, and current events more than school yard gossip and popular culture.  I was good at speech, drama, and knowledge bowl competitions, but I got far more recognition from being a mediocre football player.  And my school was more academically inclined than most schools in my region.

I have always felt like an outsider.  And developing a mental illness in my late teens only made it more pronounced.  But I suppose that being an outsider as a kid made me resilient enough to navigate a serious mental illness.  And it’s this sense of being an outsider that allows me to endure long stretches of time in solitude.  It’s this sense of being an outsider that frees me to go against popular norms and look at problems in different ways.  It’s the sense of being an outsider that took away a lot of old fears that held me back in my younger years.  I don’t fear looking like a fool.  I don’t fear being wrong because I can learn from being wrong more than I can always giving the teachers the “right” answers.  Besides, all grades measure in school is how good a kid can conform to the existing system.  Well, the existing system is becoming obsolete and is going to get changed before too many years.  It is unavoidable.  Why measure fact retention when I can look up any fact on google and wikipedia within a few seconds?  In future generations, kids are going to have to be taught to be problem solvers and deep thinkers. It matters less that, for example, that Sacramento is the capital of California than say, why Sacramento and not Los Angeles or San Francisco.  Or instead of knowing that Columbus sailed for the Americas in 1492, it would be better to explain how he was able to convince the Spanish throne to give him the funds, how he kept his crew motivated when setting off on a potential suicide mission, or what effects there were by the Europeans meeting with the Native Americans.  In the automated future, fact retention and unthinking obedience is going to matter much less than creativity and problem solving or skills that computers can’t master yet.  And it can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned.

In many ways, the geeks and nerds won the culture wars.  Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have much more influence and money than even Michael Jordan or David Beckham.  Geeks and nerds coming out in force is probably why there have been so many comic books made into movies the last several years.  Heck, even video gaming is becoming a competitive sport.  But I guess if bowling and poker are, why not video gaming?  Science and tech are gaining in influence and prestige while aspects of our past like war and poverty are going in decline. We are very fortunate that there hasn’t been any major wars between developed nations since the end of World War II.  I fear such wars would go nuclear.  So it’s a great development that we as a species are starting to lose our stomachs for violence, war, and bloodshed.  Practices like human sacrifices and near constant raiding and war used to be the norm not that many generations ago.  Such practices are considered barbaric relics of when our civilizations were less mature.  And it’s largely thanks to the geeky outcasts and their science and tech advances.

I want to end on a positive note.  I am grateful to be a geeky outsider.  I hated it as a teenager, but it was for the better.  It made me better able to deal with mental illness, it made me more self reliant, and it made me study more.  I’m much better read now than I was before I became mentally ill.  I’m glad I’m not normal.  I’m glad I’m not ignorant.  Ignorance and normal are both overrated.  In fact, both ignorance and normal suck.

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Letter to My High School Self

High school graduations are this weekend in my home state.  Many of these kids will be going to college, some to the military, others to work or travel or do missionary work.  It was eighteen years ago, in 1999, that I and my cohorts graduated from high school.  That was half of a lifetime ago.  I’ve been legally an adult now as long as I was a juvenile.  An incredible amount has changed in my life, and the world at large, since that Saturday May afternoon in the farming village of my youth.

What follows is a hypothetical letter to my eighteen year old self, mainly about things I wish I knew in my younger years that would have made my transition to the world of 2017 easier.  Too bad I couldn’t do this for real, I’d tell my younger self to buy stock in Amazon, Facebook, and Tesla when they first came out 🙂

Dear Zach,

You have just graduated from high school and now the world awaits.  I know you are looking forward to college much more than you did high school graduation.  That’s understandable.  For many people, high school is some of the roughest years of their lives.  You definitely had your problems in school, but those are now past.  Some of the people you went to high school with you’ll never have to be around again.  College will be better in many aspects.  You’ll get to pick what you want to study.  You’ll have more say in who your friends are.  The bullies and idiots will be in the minority.  Besides, most people will be too busy with their own lives to harass you like you got it in high school.  You may not think so now, but someday you will be thankful that you’re smart and nerdy.  Within the next fifteen years, you will see so much science and tech advances that you will realize that, yes, nerds really do rule the world.  No one is going to care that you weren’t a star jock or class president in college.

Speaking of sports, I know there were some aspects of high school football and band you hated.  I know you didn’t like the summer practices at six a.m. or the macho atmosphere of the locker room.  But be happy you got to play.  Playing football on Friday nights is the closest you’ll ever get to being like a gladiator or warrior.  Be happy you got to be in the school pep band.  It’s the only chance you’ll ever get to feel like a rock star.  Most thirty year olds don’t get to stand out or preform at anything.  Even though you didn’t have a great social life in high school, be happy you went to a smaller school and had opportunities to be involved in many different activities.  Most of your college friends and coworkers who went to much larger schools won’t be as well rounded as you will become.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t work your dream job out of college.  Most people won’t.  In fact because of the technology advances I talked about earlier, many jobs will be taken over by computers and machines.  So many people will be in that place where they’re working jobs they didn’t train for.  It’s not a failure on your part, it’s just that the world is changing much faster than people even in 1999 could anticipate.

Also, don’t feel guilty if you struggle at dating.  In the future, almost everyone will struggle at dating.  Besides, you will see many of your classmates go through divorces and marriage issues as the years pass.  Almost half of marriages will end in divorce.  And in the future, many adults will forego marriage entirely.  Surprise, so will you.  But being single isn’t bad.  It’s actually quite peaceful at times.  Some really big achievers in world history never married or had children.  You’ll be grateful you never got married.  Trust me.  You always had a hard independent streak in you.  That’s only going to get stronger with age.

Don’t take the opinions of others too seriously.  People in general can be quite dumb at times, so their opinions are almost never right.  The only person you have to answer to at all times is yourself.  Guard your integrity.  Be a man of sound character even if most people around you are liars and cheats.  Yes, cheaters do prosper.  But people will not honor their prosperity as much as they condemn their lack of character.  This was true in the past and will continue to be true.

You will have victories.  You will have struggles and losses.  People will come and go out of your life.  But hold onto your close friends and family.  Be happy you got to know your grandparents.  They won’t be around forever.  Be content and calm no matter what happens or doesn’t happen.  You will change your mind and thinking about almost everything several times over during the next eighteen years.  The only people who have their life philosophy set in stone at age eighteen are fools who are setting themselves up to be obsolete and out of touch with reality.  Like I told you, major changes are coming.  You wouldn’t believe me if I told you some of the things you will see before 2017.  You’ll just have to see them for yourself.

Be happy that you traveled and were open to new experiences in your youth.  The older you get, the tougher it will get to just travel or try new things.  Continue to be open to new experiences.  It will put you far ahead of most adults in your life.  Speaking of adults, don’t just think that because someone has gray hair or more money that they are smarter or wiser than you.  Many times they won’t be.  Some of them were just lucky.  And chance does play more of a part in your life than you would like.  You like the thought that you have a lot of say in your own destiny.  But in reality, you really have less control than you would like.  Sometimes things just happen that aren’t your fault or because of your hard work.

Remember to relax and know that life is a competition only against yourself.  Never compare yourself to anyone else.  You can’t live their life and they can’t live yours.

Sincerely,

Your 36 year old self, May 2017.