Breaking Anxious

The television series Breaking Bad is in some ways a prolonged and excruciating study in the art of concealing evidence, along with the ways that a once good man (Walt White) finds that no matter how smart he is (and he is very smart) there always seems to be some little detail he has forgotten to erase his trail of bad deeds. The details of his story are largely irrelevant. Yes, it’s all very melodramatic, he gets diagnosed with cancer, uses his chemistry skills to synthesize high grade methamphetamine so he can make millions to support his young family after he dies. All the gruesome intrigue this leads him into is a minor concern to me, minor, that is, besides the curious study the series provides us of a man tormented by the worries of leaving no footprint of his criminal path left to be traced.

He fails time and again. Naturally. It is hard to erase all traces of a particular history, even if it is a secret life, particularly when that secret life is about half of one’s daily time.

Why Walter White worries is due to the illegality of his secret drug lord life. He has tremendous cause for anxiety. Yet he remains throughout fairly astute and smart. It is always little details that escape him, and yet he does a great job of erasing most of the details of his nefarious activities.


(Truth be told: I was a bit anxious writing this post, since I do not like writing or even thinking about drugs and the violence that is associated with illegal drugs. So much so that I often wonder if it came to a citizens referendum I might end up signing along with folks who wish to legalize narcotics and hallucinogens, simply because if they are legal and regulated then most of the violence would disappear, and society would only have to then deal with the side-effects of the loser junkies who indulge and create danger for themselves and those near them. A lot less worse than the violence created by making drugs illegal (e.g., the black markets which have evolved as a result). Yep, I think I would vote for legalization, provided studies and evidence can show the black markets would dissolve away.)

So what about you or me, the otherwise normal people, living with anxiety and panic disorders? Why do we worry so much and torment ourselves? Hopefully you do not suffer from anxiety or depression. But for those who do, then you might know what I’m talking about. Someone entirely normal, who has an outwardly good life, surrounded by good friends, can yet feel anxious and in utter panic at the weight of the word pressing upon them. Everyone feels this way at isolated moments. But most of the time they will think little of these micro-panic attacks. A few people however cannot ever escape this panic. It presses upon them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it seems it will never stop. suicide often seems the only “cure”, the only escape route.

This is the difference between a healthy person and a person suffering from chronic anxiety or old-fashioned neurosis. Healthy people feel the same symptoms, but they only last a minute or so. They may even feel panic once or twice every day. They continue functioning “normally”, or whatever normal is defined by in their life. The mentally ill person, on the other hand, will never be free of the panic, and they must learn to live with it, keep it suppressed, or find other outlets, or use drugs or other interventions, or simply suffer and be unable to function like a normal healthy person, or, in some rare cases, they will make the payment of the ultimate price for getting rid of this condition.

A Great White Cope

If you do suffer from acute chronic anxiety then here is one possible way to cope. I really do not know of a sure fire coping mechanism. I just happened to think of this while watching the beginning of the fifth season of Breaking Bad. it’s merely a variation of “think of how worse off other are”. It’s probably mostly junk advice, but here it is for what it’s worth.

Think of people who live like the fictional Walter White. Such people do exist, believe me. They have real cause for anxiety. They create their own anxiety. You, or I, on the other hand, are imagining anxiety from sources of fairly normal living conditions. Our suffering is no less real, but we are letting ordinary life events expand needlessly into mammoth sources of worry or discomfort. Not sure about you, but sometimes I just cannot help it. Negative thoughts sometimes seem to creep into my mind, they swirl around, and expand, and eventually become so suffocating I can hardly think of what could make them vanish other than death. Yeah, it gets that heavy, pretty easily and pretty quickly. And from what? Just normal worries. Normal worries.

When this happens to you, maybe just try to recall this idea: that at least your worries are not about drugs or covering up a murder or having to find millions of dollars in savings for your family’s future (well, hopefully not that one). Your anxieties probably have far gentler causes, and are therefore, you might at least hope, controllable. Once the immediate severe panic subsides, just resolve to do something little towards relieving the pressures surrounding yourself. Pay some friend a visit, or invite a friend around for a tea or coffee. Or just hunker down and read a nice book. If your normal work is not too onerous, then dive into it with more zeal and lose yourself in it for a while, or lose yourself in some other task, like gardening. Hell, even if it’s just pulling weeds out of the lawn. It’s hard to stuff up a job like that. Go for a long walk, have an exercise workout, or whatever gets your blood pumping without any stress.

The key is to put aside your worries for just a while, maybe even a whole day. Since you are not involved in the drug underworld, nothing will collapse or fatally harm you if you take some time aside to be kind to yourself. If this makes you feel selfish then don’t do it for yourself, find a friend to enjoy a day with, make it about giving them a good time. Besides, looking after yourself can always be thought of as looking after others, since how are you going to be a happy and positive influence on others if you are moody and anxious and depressed all the time. So you owe it to others to look after yourself and be happier and more spirited.

Haven’t got any good books around? Good excuse to go and find one at the library. Librarians are great people for recommending a good read. Or your favourite bookshop, if any exists in your town or city, one of the staff there will know a few great books to read. If you are really tired and down, to low to even read, then try a DVD, the same people will also know a few great movies.

You know what I mean. There is some safe pace or activity for you. There has to be or you’d likely be dead by now. You probably go to it unconsciously. It might not be a physical place, it could be somewhere in your mind. If you are strung out and anxious beyond belief then go to that place. The world will still be pretty much as you left it when you return. Which could perhaps be a depressing thought. But so what? Only difference is you might be calmer and a little happier and will thus be easier for people around you to cope with.

Watching Breaking Bad was hard for me. The story was addictive viewing, but I found it hard to stomach. There’s just no way to relate to the fictional Mr White. But it was good to think that in this world some people really have crazy huge worries and bring it all upon themselves. I bring my worries upon myself too, and they are crazy, but they are no where near as huge.

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Justice and Mercy and Avoiding Assigning Blame

Why do people feel the need to assign blame for unfortunate events? Is the cause of a tragedy or crime always one singular person’s will? Is it more productive and ethical to forget about blame (entirely?) and concentrate on fairness and justice and protection?


There is a very thought provoking podcast on RadioLab (radiolab podcast 2013-09-12 .) The title of the episode is Blame. In one segment the story of a guy with severe epilepsy is told. This dude, Kevin, had such bad blackouts that he and his wife eventually had radical brain surgery, to literally cut away parts of his brain that were causing his fits. The procedure is interesting enough, so I will not bore you with the details, but just recommend you listen to the podcast.

The fascinating thing is the horrid case that he was arrested for by the FBI and spent some months in prison. He should have been locked away for life, but the court judge was lenient because part of his criminal defence was that he was unaware of his excesses due to his severe neurological condition. The physicians treating him, and consultant psychiatrists, gave expert testimony explaining that people with conditions like Kevin’s often have a form of schizophrenia, or multiple personality disorder (MPD), so a part of them can be committing terrible crimes while the saner “normal” character is unaware. (In fact his crimes were so shocking that I do not wish to write about them.)

This sort of MPD can even be bizarre enough that it occurs in distinct spheres of life. So while he was committing internet crimes at home, at work, when he had access to computers, there was no trace of his crimes. The prosecutor took exception to this and argued that Kevin must have been consciously aware of what he was doing, and not just acting via neurological impulses, precisely because if his behaviour was purely impulsive then he surely could not have been able to halt his criminal activity while at work. OK, so maybe he was too busy at work?

In any case, the judge did not allow his full defence. She claimed that while in his saner moods he could have taken steps to correct for his crimes. Which he did not.

Assigning Blame is Wrong, but Also Right

The moral or ethical dilemma here is that if we start using neurology to assigning blame to criminals, we can claim that they simply cannot help their behaviour. So their brain cells are guilty, but if they have any free will then perhaps they should not be treated so harshly. You can imagine a future where every single human behaviour is accounted for by deterministic brain processes and gees and upbringing. Leaving the “person” unblameworthy for their behaviour.

Which is ridiculous of course, since we have a justice system to hold people accountable for their actions.

But this raises the whole question of why we need a justice system. It is not truly for punishing wrong-doers, although some people may have conceived of the justice system in this way, and it may have even been an original motive. But surely we can agree now

Think about it! At least for me, personally, I do not really care if someone wants to shoot-up on drugs, but if they are going to harm someone else while doing it, or rob money to pay for their habit, then that does effect innocents. So such a person needs to be held accountable.

We have a good system for doing this. It is called The Law. Yeah, it coolly assigns blame and ostensibly punishes people where it finds blame. It is not perfect, but it is a good system, and it evolves and becomes better over time, it is not rigid and fixed, and it is probably the best system we can develop with current technology for assigning blame and punishing people. But this is a meta-cognitive view. It is not the only way we have to view The Law. Another way of viewing The Law, which does not change at all the way the law works, is to view it as a system for protecting people.

It is our choice how we choose to interpret the purpose of The Law. The Law itself is neutral to it’s purpose.

Where Neural-legals and Ethics Unite

This is the fascinating thing that the RadioLab folks do not quite get to, though they come close. The neurologist they interview is a keen intellect, and he gets close to resolving the issue. The thing is, we should not view the justice system as a way of assigning blame. Because the neurology argument will inevitably make this a joke. The “blame” is on a bunch of cells in the criminal’s brain. And you cannot incarcerate neural cells without incarcerating the whole person. But, the ethicists says this is precisely what we should do, but not for reasons of blame. It is for protection!

Justice, you see, is not law. A professor once pointed this out to me, Geoffrey Palmer, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand no less. He told me matter-of-factly that the law is not at all about justice. I remember feeling aggrieved at this, since I thought this is what ethical lawyers and judges were all about — making the world a more just and peaceful place.

But no. The Law is merely a system for agreeing upon rules for a society and enforcing them with as much consistently as practicable. Which is why clear and unambiguous legal drafting is much of an art, and also why deliberately making law ambiguous is also an art, because it endows the law with flexibility of interpretation, which is precisely what judges and jurists need to avoid getting caught by loopholes.

So we have a legal system on the one hand to enforce the laws agreed upon and constantly refined, debated on, and evolved by society. A society that does not debate and evolve it’s laws is morally decrepit if you ask me. This also allows escaping the problem of retroactive justice.

Retroactive Justice is Often Unnecessary

When an innocent person is convicted of a crime they did not commit, and future evidence reveals the truth, then vast reparations and apologies need to be made. But when someone who did commit a crime is later found to have a medical or psychological conditions which ostensibly “excuses them” of the crime, this is a different matter. And it gets us closer to the resolution between justice and behavioural neurology.

The justice system cannot apologise for incarcerating a dangerous person merely because their condition is biological, but was not perhaps known to be so — in the past when they were convicted. Whether you believe a person has a sentient soul and free-will is irrelevant. We should think of incarcerating people ONLY because we wish to make society safe for innocents. And in extreme cases perhaps also making the criminal safer for themselves, since a lot of criminal activity is purely self-harming. We wish, on the ethical side, to protect people form themselves as well as others. On the purely legals side, the written law is merely one way to do this within societal parameters.

The Law can be totally blind to mercy and compassion, while we who implement the law can be entirely merciful and compassionate. Which is precisely the resolution I think RadioLab struggled to find and yet could not quite articulate. It is not a horribly unethical thing to incarcerate a criminal because their epilepsy or schizophrenia or paranoia “made them” act in a way that their higher reasoning could not control. This poor person may have not ever been able to reason their own way morally out of committing the crime, but we can still forgive them on one level, and remove them from harm at another, compassionately.

And whether you believe the human drive and need to act compassionately and mercifully is also purely governed by our neurology or not, that fact is that we have higher conscious reasoning which allows us to get a “birds eye view” of this aspect of justice and the law. And this is spiritual and noble, no matter what it’s biological or spiritual origin in the human soul and mind.

Coldly implementing the law does not forbid us from being compassionate as individuals, nor merciful as a collective society.

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On a personal note, I think the judge who convicted Kevin was supremely wise. She saw him as a threat to himself and others, and she punished him for this potential. But she did so compassionately. In her verdict she explained her reasoning, both for being lenient in the length of sentence (because Kevin was clearly impaired by the medical procedure which was supposed to treat his epilepsy but which left him with this horrible MPD condition) and also she explained clearly why imprisoning him was not a vindictive decision, it was to show him that he did have means to preempt his criminal behaviour, but had chosen not to hold himself accountable in his sane moments.

And I believe she was wise in this decision. His punishment served him good purpose, which he admitted himself. And however cruel his fate may seem, (he was a victim too, a victim of epilepsy and an imperfect medical system) there is no way the judge could have assigned blame to the current medical system! It was only Kevin who could have stopped his crimes. And blame was not really the issue, as the RadioLab neurologist pointed out admirably. The issue was protection for the greater good.

The Compassion of Algorithmic Justice

At one point the RadioLab episode describes a method for predicting recidivism rates. It is a point-based system, and it has 70% predictive power, whereas human estimators (experts no less!) only achieve 50% predictive success.

The RadioLab correspondents have a bit of a strong debate about the merits of such systems for apportioning blame. They have the issue all wrong! The best predictive system is the best!

The ethical and moral concern is natural and understandable. People do not want decisions of mercy and justice to be left up to a computer algorithm. But this is entirely wrong-headed thinking!

Compassionate human beings are the ones devising and evolving the software! Human beings are the ones deciding when to use the software. It is not an abdication of moral responsibility to leave certain decisions in the hands of computer algorithms. Especially when those algorithms are known to be much more successful than human experts! In fact, it is ethically wrong to do otherwise!

Overly Romanticising Justice

When I finished the first draft of this post I paused to wonder if I had been fair. There s a danger when writing emotive opinion pieces to ignore so many factors. In my case I tend to filter out all the ugliness and focus in on what is beautiful. So I wanted to be fair, you know … JUST! So I thought I should carefully think about contrary arguments. What would they be?

Firstly, I do not think I am making a strong argument. I am merely saying that there is more than one way to interpret the purpose of The Law. But, OK, someone could say that the “for protection” interpretation is loopy, and we really should think of the Law properly as assigning blame and judging people for their wrong-doings.

Well, I do sympathise with this strong prosecutors type of stance. But there is a good reason why adversarial justice/law systems in the USA and UK have both prosecutors and defenders. They are two sides of a necessary search for truth. From the clash of the adversarial views one can hope for a sharp focus on pure evidence and all conceivable fair reasons and legal and ethical arguments. This s, after all, why the “insanity defence” has in recent years morphed a bit into a rising number of “biological determinist” defences. This is what Kevin’s defenders tried. They tried to argue that Kevin’s higher conscious, his putative free-will, was not in control during the moments of his criminal activity.

But I do not think the stance of the prosecutor nor the stance of the defender in court negate the validity of the view that ultimately The Law can always be seen as primarily serving the purpose of protection rather than punishment.

One reason for this perhaps “romantic view”, is that punishment alone serves little purpose. It usually, at least in the hands of normal people rather than psychopaths, serves the purpose of trying to discourage wrong actions, both from being repeated and from being done in the first place (punishment of the guilty as warning to others).

Justice is Beautiful

So the take-home message for this post is that the Law is only a means to an end, and we need to start thinking of the ends of the Law as protection for society, not as merely a method of punishment or assigning blame. And this resolves all the paradoxes which will otherwise crop up as neurology advances and informs us of why people may do certain strange this. And it it is this attitude we have towards the purpose of the Law which is where we find our higher sense of Justice. The Law can be ugly, but Justice is always beautiful.

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Doing the Left Thing

I really enjoyed Soo and Lulu’s story aired on RadioLab What’s Left When You’re Right?  (radiolab podcast: 2014-02-25 ).  Have a listen, what do you think of it? Is there a resolution to the personality types? Or are they both two extremes on the same positive axis of some kind of empathy spectrum?

It’s heart-rending when Lulu recounts her new-found respect for her friend Su, especially when they were moments prior on the verge of splitting up as close friends. But it made me wonder …

Is there a super-character possible in-between the type of warm caring fuzzy avoid-controversy type of Lulu and the harsh argumentative just and stand-up-on principle even if it is dangerous and confrontational character type of Soo?

Can You Escape Personality Typecasting

Maybe I over-think things too much. But in this case I thought “yes”. But they are rare individuals — those gems who have such brilliantly good personality in multiple modes. I have known one or two souls who had the peaceful temperament of Soo combined with the righteous outrage and justice-seeking traits of Soo.

There are other polarities in character, each end being good in some way, but which are often hard to find united in a single person. At least hard to find them united in action in a given circumstance. But here’s the thing which interests me: psychology so often deals with extremes, and ignores unity. We hear about personality disorders and polar opposites and these famed “character types”. But who is ever truly “of a type”? Aren’t we all somewhat fluid and adaptive?

Well, no, apparently not. But why not? This is the key thing!  We tend not to be fluid in character (like, “haha ironic”, the extreme case of Zelig, in the Woody Allen film, the “human chameleon”, funny cute movie) but I think this is because people settle in to their type and are not conscious enough to be more adaptive. But I believe adaptation in psychological traits is a “superpower” which we all possess. We just fail often to use it!

Subvert the Psychologists

Use your superpowers is the beautiful plea I am making here! Be adaptive. Think adaptive. Do not rest with who you think you are or who society expects you to be. Make some change for yourself and do something courageous when the opportunity arises, whether that is standing down from an argument or sticking up for a just cause.

Psychologists tell us these character types are kinda’ hard-wired in us. But I do not accept that. The rare combination character types tell me that multi-modal good character, the best from diverse types, can be acquired with effort. Lulu can learn to be stronger and deal with conflict and not shy away from it, and Soo can learn to tone down her righteous indignation for the sake of friendship, when absolute justice is not critically important. (I’m not saying she should, just that she could.) What is absolute justice anyway? When I wrote the previous sentence I felt uneasy.

And that got me thinking further…

Absolute justice is surely always critical and important. Why should a character like Soo “tone down” her sense of righteousness? I don’t think she should, and to live in a world where people wish she would “tone down” is unfair. But I also think Lulu’s character is good. She avoids confrontation. Here’s the thing: it is possible to both avoid confrontation and assert your sense of justice. How?

The key is to adopt a point of view which is a little belligerent and does not accept that good moral or ethical sensibilities should ever need to be opposed. Not in principle and also not in practice. So you have to think a bit when faced with a situation that has potential for conflict when justice is demanded. You just have to tell yourself that the two can be reconciled, you can have a non-confrontational assertion of justice. But how? What about the story told by Lulu of the crazy dude and Soo?

Well, that story is a good example. Initially Soo was confrontational, but in the end she befriended the weird dude. So you need to look ahead to the end of a situation, to see how maybe some initial confrontation will be temporary. There is also another point: Soo was aggressive in her initial confrontation, but she did not have to be so, she could have confronted the craziness of the “dude” in a calmer more peaceful way.

The way RadioLab reported Lulu’s story made it sound as though Soo was initially too aggressive, bordering on dangerous (it could have inflamed the psychotic side of the dude.) But listening the to audio segment Lulu had recorded of the incident, I felt Soo was actually not all that aggressive. I think she was misperceived as aggressive, while in fact she displayed a serious assertiveness and no more. I might be reading it wrongly, but I took the story as a good example of how justice can be served without necessary conflict.

The recipient of justice will often feel aggrieved, or guilty, or angry, or defensive, or even violent, or any number of negative emotions, but this should not stop s from seeking justice. Perhaps there is a smart way to seek justice and a dumb way, the dumb way is the way of overt confrontation, the smart way is through calm peaceful dialogue to try to help the people concerned see the error of their ways. It takes longer to resolve the smart way, but perhaps that is partly why it is smart. You know the old adage: “good things take time”. It is not always true, but it is true more often than not when seeking justice.

Combat Leftism

The last story in that RadioLab podcast is good listening too, but somewhat more academic. Lefties are 10% in the human population, and there are many evolutionary theories about why — why left-handed is an advantage even though it correlates with a long list of weaknesses. One strength of lefties is in sport and combat!  And athletes tend to be good reproducers! But why is there 90/10 right/left bias in humans? Many think it goes back to brain asymmetry with developed with human languae. Language became (accidentally) left0brain dominant, and motor control goes in opposite ways, the left brain controls the right side of the body, the right brain controls the left. It’s not that lefties are bad with language, just that their neurology is a bit right-biased, by genes it seems.

The moral and spiritual dimension is far more fascinating with the Soo and Lulu story, and that woman Soo is something special, you have to admit. But there is also a moral component to the Lefties story too, which is that left-handed people are often victimized or treated unfairly in society, and yet most people are not even consciously aware of this. So be sensitive, OK!? Look of for left-handedness in children and do not discourage it, don’t force them to be right-handed. Please. My special plea to the world for today.

I am aware pleas like this are muttered every day, but you have to spend the time on them. A little goes a long way when repeated, people forget little things too easily. But being treated poorly for being left-handed can be a big bad deal for a leftie, especially a child.




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