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February 22nd, 2019

To be ‘treading water’ is to be going nowhere, holding steady, not moving forward, but not sinking.  This describes a mere holding pattern, like a plane doing loops waiting for an open runway.  But anyone who has actually treaded water in a pool or in the ocean for any length of time knows how quickly we grow tired in such a state.  Treading water has to be temporary otherwise we burn out and sink.  Even planes eventually run out of fuel and some have even crashed while waiting in such a state.


How many people feel as though their life is merely treading water.  The day job barely covers expenses.  What comes in goes right back out in order to simply keep existing in society in the context we have among the people we know.   However, this kind of state is not one that is holding steady.  Such a situation, without some strategic plan to move forward and end the tread, is exhausting, wears a human psychology down and ultimately makes a person less likely to see a competitive edge when it comes floating along.


Robert Sapolsky has laid out how such a chronic kind of stress creates a vicious cycle, where such scarcity and poverty influence neurochemistry in a way that makes it increasingly unlikely for a person to make a better long term decision.  Or to put it another way: the greater poverty a person experiences, the more likely they are to make decisions that increase this poverty because the chronic experience of stress releases a cocktail of brain chemicals that fundamentally gears the brain towards a perspective of short term survival over long term thriving.  This creates a trend in decisions and lifestyle that begins to look very much like treading water to exhaustion. 


We might imagine someone out at sea who has been treading water for days and days and days in total fear and nearing absolute exhaustion.  Would such a person be able to swim over to a piece of driftwood if they saw it?  Perhaps, but the better question is: would such a person be more likely to make it to the piece of driftwood if they had just fallen off a ship, or if they’d been treading water for days on end?  The comparison is far more important than any specific outcome because the exhausted person is far less likely to muster greater effort and put it in a good direction. 


Treading water might seem like a relatively stable, static circumstance, but when time is compounded onto this process, it begins to look like a downward spiral.  One that leads to no where good.

In order to break such a bi-directional feedback loop, a kind of situational jiu jitsu move is needed.  Some clever angle or plan that begins to unravel the coils of this trap. 


Unfortunately, the likelihood of such a clever idea popping into someone’s head goes down and down the longer a person treads water.


It’s at this point we remember the old saying, no person is an island, or should be.  Such a sentiment is reminiscent of our greatest attribute as a species: cooperation, and we might wonder what – given these deep neurological processes – can we do to help out our fellow and friend?  What piece of driftwood or lifejacket can we send drifting their way?


We can go further and ask: how can we help all these exhausted people treading water to build their own boats and set sail towards a better future?

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Podcast Ep. 313: Treading Water

Tinkered Thinking

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