Blame of Reference by Ozgur K. Sahin

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about her dating life, and as she was a self-professed “geek” who heavily favored dating other geeks, this led to a discussion about her dating pool and the “geek community” in general. After we’d talked about all the pitfalls of self-applying the term “geek” in online dating profiles (variations on ensuring she would remain surrounded by other people who self-applied that term), she expressed an interest in possibly dating outside of the geek community, but was concerned that her social skills may not be up to the task. And that’s where I started in on my recent (at the time) “geek community rant.” I dialed it back somewhat, but I’ve said similar things in this column in the past about broader trends. Basically, one of the things that particular community espouses is universal acceptance. They like to accept everyone as they are. One reason they do this is because most of them are unconventional in some way, and they are used to being ridiculed and cast out by the conventional (mainstream) people for it. Having been cast out, they are very uncomfortable casting others out—though sometimes discreet exceptions are made for those deemed “mainstream.”

The problem is, of course, unconventional is an umbrella term that usually incorporates both preconventional and trans/postconventional attitudes, and if we lump all of those together, we get a group with a high degree of dysfunction—and they all just kind of accept it. There is no call within the community to grow and change, particularly if “growing” means “gaining more common ground with the mainstream” (which is fairly common in the case of the preconventional). If you are already accepted by those around you, there is no external impetus to improve yourself. In that community, being dysfunctional is often seen as okay, or even normal, so why change anything if you don’t feel like it? And if you really do want to grow anyway, just on your own inner drive, the community surrounding you will often be of little or no help. They may even feel like you are attempting to abandon them, forget your roots, or “try to be someone you’re not.” In a culture where the belief that our behaviors are just a result of “who we are,” whether or not that came about through nature or nurture, any change can smell like pretension or regression. In short, my friend’s desire to learn better social skills was not going to be helped by steadfastly remaining within the confines of the “geek community,” and I said as much as tactfully as possible.

It was one reason I distanced myself from the community as well. I felt accepted, but not known, and in the end, that doesn’t feel like real acceptance. But if you accept everyone, whatever their character traits, then you don’t really have to bother knowing those traits. Eventually, I got tired of the same being expected of me. My attempts at getting to know others were often blocked by evasion and discomfort, and it was assumed that I would keep putting up with people who would be considered highly obnoxious if they ever stepped outside of their own safe community. I wanted better things in my life, and my surroundings were not conducive to it—several individuals were, but not the community.

It just happened that this movement happened just before my breakup, so while I felt like I had left behind a great deal all at once, I also felt like I had the chance to change a great many things at once, like if all the unwanted and beat-up furniture burned up in a fire. I wanted better friends and I wanted a better girlfriend. And I noticed right away that having better friends made me much pickier about who I would consider dating. Sure, part of it was just being less willing to tolerate as much nonsense from people, but we all know that sometimes we meet people we are attracted to and we feel inclined to tolerate more from them. That is where having set the bar very high for my friendships really helped me—you can’t have the bar that high in one part of your life and still fail to notice how far below it another part of your life falls. Even now, more than two years later, that is a key piece of dating advice I give to friends and the clients I coach: make better friends. Indeed, at least three of them said (on the heels of their dating dissatisfaction) they felt they needed better friends before I even brought it up.

It’s as if people sense that if they want to grow, they’re going to have to move away from anything in their current environment that won’t help that. But I don’t just think it’s about “consciously striving for excellence.” I think it is also about feeling an unconscious need for a mirror in which to mark our own progress.

People say all the time, “You are a product of your environment.” As you know if you’ve read my column at all, I don’t believe that to nearly the extent that some do. But one way that I think this is true is one that I never hear people talk about except perhaps in deep psychological discussions: you are not only a product of what your environment does or does not do to you; you are a product of your own actions and how your environment reacts, or fails to react to them.

Ever find that you only use your gym membership when you have a workout buddy? How about a fitness class? It’s not just that you drag your butt off the couch so you don’t let someone else down or look bad; you could just go and do the bare minimum. But no, usually we find that it is easier for us to focus and excel when everyone around us is doing the same things. It is simply easier for us to do whatever our environment is doing, and when we are tired of whatever that is, we seek to change our environment. No, I don’t believe that those around us effectively make our decisions for us, but unless we want to fight that subconscious current, or even fight conscious opposition, we will often try to change our environment when we try to change ourselves. I definitely find it easier to write when I go to a cafe, because cafes tend to be full of students, and students are usually pursuing their dreams to some extent too. It’s easier to get out on the floor and dance when there are already plenty of people dancing.

A big part of it is just about what is considered “okay” or “normal,” just like with the geek community. When you grow up having to tolerate a lot of emotional dysfunction, lack of commitment, abusive and selfish family members, poor communication, and inappropriate boundaries, that often registers as normal. And even if you know that it’s messed up, and you strive to have better things in your life, that bar is set awfully low, and you may end up settling for anything even slightly above it. You can find yourself getting into relationships and friendships that have a strong flavor of that same norm, but are slightly better. Perhaps you are part of that dysfunction, because that is what you learned (or that is what you choose). Perhaps you behave badly or react to things badly, and your dysfunctional environment lets you do that. Those who surround you don’t bat an eye, or they complain about it, but nothing ever changes—this is normal to everyone, including you. You have a frame of reference, yes, but it is so far away from what you seek that you may tend to include too much of the same elements in the dreams you pursue. Can you still break away from that? Of course. But you’re not only fighting your environment; you’re fighting your own experiences and perceptions of normal and acceptable.

This is one thing that people in poor neighborhoods struggle with, but often don’t use these same words for it. In the U.S., these are usually black people in predominantly black neighborhoods, as being a poor white person does not garner a lot of serious consideration, but there is also more of a stigma attached to black families in poverty—they are just expected to be poor and to underachieve. Everyone—including those in such conditions—is enveloped in the idea that this is normal, and they even call each other down for trying to change their lives and circumstances. Many others say, “But none of this can actually stop you from breaking out of those expectations and circumstances,” and there is some truth to that—just as there is truth to that same statement for people who expect to be rich and decadent, people who expect to be abused, people who expect others to take care of them, people who expect to be ignored, forgiven, discriminated against, adored, or anyone else who has an environment or mentality that they wish to (or should) fight against. But it is also true that there is something to fight against, and the creation of that something is a project we are all responsible for. We all create the current, whether we fight against it or not, because we are engaged with it.

Do you hate the culture and expectations of the opulent, wasteful rich? Fine, but most who do also end up contributing to it in ways they don’t even see. Hate the entitled victim mentality when you encounter it? You most likely contribute to it discreetly as well, even by freely choosing to support those who perpetuate it. Kudos to those who don’t, and you can only manage what you’re aware of, but that’s why self-awareness is so important. Because, you see, we are all part of every environment we interact with. That means even when we aren’t the ones doing the changing or seeking to change the environment, we are still “that environment” to those who are seeking change. And how we react to them is as important as how our environment reacts to us. We are their mirror, and they are ours. When some bright kid tries to realize his potential, get good grades, and live big dreams, telling him he’s “trying to be white” means you’re failing to be part of a responsible environment. And when you try to help him by lowering the test scores needed for his ethnic demographic, you’re maybe helping him, but you’re perpetuating the perception that it’s the necessary solution and the expectation that his community is just prone to underachievement. It’s a fine line to walk, and sometimes to break out of the expectations you have or those others have of you, you must selectively disengage from the dynamic that brings them about and reinforces them.

I’ve known many parents who can’t seem to teach their kids how to behave. Their kids start arguing some point like advocates in a court of law, and the parents start arguing back in the same way. That is often a dynamic that the parents lose as soon as they engage in it, particularly when the child is just trying to see how to get out of acting responsibly. The child has an expectation for you to prove why he should behave before he should do it, and the parents engage that expectation by trying to provide the proof. Sometimes you’ve got to break out of the cycle of dealing in “norms” and “expectations” and all manner of forecasting that is meant to rigidly control perceptions (even of fairness) regarding what you or other people do. We don’t all know the best way to reshape the future on some macrocosmic level, but we all know growth when we see it, even if we can’t point to it consciously. If we strive for it in ourselves and react responsibly to it in others (by simply allowing it, regardless of our attempts to manipulate it further, for good or ill), then growth will continue on an individual AND societal level.

Stepping away from environments or pieces of them that don’t allow growth tends to create new positive environments and erode negative old ones. If you want to be part of an environment that fosters growth, seek growth in yourself and respond well to it in others. You don’t have to be a “social justice warrior,” because now you already are one. When you grow beyond one environment, you’re really growing beyond its negative elements, and you want to build bridges to the positive elements in other environments. Shouting at people does not foster growth, nor does it indicate any in yourself, because you are showing everyone that you are not a “positive element” to which they can build bridges, nor are you interested in building any bridges yourself. That’s true whether you are shouting at conservatives for their religious views, or if you’re in impoverished circumstances shouting “white male privilege” at people who are using their situation in life to build bridges to you and to solve the problem. Focus on doing one right thing at a time, and allow the same in others. Set that bar higher for yourself, surround yourself with others who do, and be that bar for the rest of the world. Blaming an environment is only something you can do once you are aware of its inadequacies, and that is the very first moment when you should be seeking to step out of it (and thus change it). That moment of awareness is the first step towards what you are aware of not having power over you any longer—take it, and erode the negativity in the world’s environments one step at a time, and remember that you don’t get to have it all change at once on your own whims. That kind of sudden environmental shift for the rest of the world wouldn’t be as helpful as you might think anyway.

Killing Machine by Phil Temples

The newly-arrived-on-earth alien walked into the nearest structure in the bustling population sector. He was acquainted with their language and eager to begin his studies of the human species. The structure he chose to enter that day was the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square in Manhattan.

“I’m here to learn about—“

“Son, you’ve come to the right place to learn,” declared Staff Sergeant William R. Mahoney. “The Army will teach you all about tactics, leadership – in fact, we’ll provide you with all the essential tools you’ll ever need. What’s your name, son?”

“I am known as Glaxnow 34139542—“

“Son, no need to recite your social to me just now. That comes later. So, uh, Glaxo, was it? Where ya’ from? The city?”

“I am from far away.”

“Oh, New Jersey, huh? Well, that’s okay. We won’t hold it against ya,’” Mahoney chuckled.

“Will I learn about … the enemy’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities?”

“You most certainly will!” declared the Sergeant.

The alien paused for a moment to reflect on the human’s offer. If he understood correctly, affiliating with this entity known as ‘Army’ would greatly aid him in his ultimate mission on this world.

“This sounds most satisfactory. What unit of trade or remuneration do you require of me?”

“Huh? No, son, you don’t understand. See, the Army pays you to join. Now, if you’ll just sit down right here, we’ll get started on the paperwork.”

“One final question, sir. Will ‘Army’ equip me with the knowledge and tools I require to … eradicate other humans?”

“Abso-fuckin’-lutely, young man. You’ll stare into the eyes of those mean, ugly sons of bitches as you stick it to ’em, all the while supremely confident in the knowledge that you’re sending them straight to hell. Yep, you’ll make Uncle Sam proud. When the Army is through with you, you’ll be a lean, mean, killing machine.”

“Excellent. I am ready to consummate our contractual agreement now.”

“One thing, Glaxo. We, uh… we might have to do something about those extra fingers… maybe some cosmetic surgery or something. But we can deal with that later, Right now I need your ‘John Henry’ right /here/. Good! And now, /here/ …”

Phil Temples lives in Watertown, Massachusetts, USA and works as a
computer systems administrator at a university. He has published over
eighty works of short fiction in print and online journals. Blue Mustang Press recently published Phil’s murder-mystery novel, “The Winship Affair.” And his new paranormal-horror novel, “Helltown Chronicles,” has just been accepted by Eternal Press.