Life is a lived experience through many intersectional identities
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I believe the pure relief and, often, joy of ‘being seen’ makes sense when placed against the backdrop of living a life in a world that doesn’t conform to our ‘as if’ belief. There’s a weight lifted and that release forms many a basis for love and intimacy. Of course it does. Who wouldn’t want to create a life with someone who, out of the thousands that came before, takes away the constant wariness of looking in the mirror of our social interactions and possibly not seeing our own face?
Why is it, then, so difficult for others to understand us? We’re the same species. We’re using the same words in sentences that, in a specific culture, are generally accepted as having a common meaning. While we will accept that other people don’t have access to our inner mind, this seems a small thing. Unfortunately it isn’t small. It’s not even large. It’s the whole problem.
Past, Present, Future
In this world of digitized behavior, kept for all eternity, the human proclivity to organize the present in line with the past has gotten enormous support.
In a nutshell, people will interpret your current behavior in a way that makes it consistent with your past behavior, and they will tend to play down or completely ignore evidence that contradicts their existing opinion of you. What’s more, they will have no idea that they’re doing it.
The quote from Heidi Halvorson above is perhaps a bit more positive than warranted, in the sense that people will “have no idea” they’re ignoring evidence to the contrary of a set opinion. On the contrary, quite often evidence to the contrary is deliberately dismissed as being aberrations, as detours from the ‘true’ reality of the person being judged. This dismissal is particularly strong when judgment is joined with identity. In other words, it’s not simply that a behavior is wrong, it’s that the behavior is representative of their associated race, gender, social group. Any contrary behavior to this homogenized story will be dismissed as belonging to a long con or other form of manipulation.
There is a space in which people are unaware they’re ignoring data, often in the day-to-day minutiae of life. Ever been driving and suddenly came to the realization that you don’t remember the last several miles? This detached or autopilot thinking happens fairly often, especially when a job is repetitious or a person feels no sense of ownership for what they’re engaged in. We can acknowledge this tendency while still pointing to how certain ideologies seem to support doing so deliberately. Anytime in which a part of someone is taken to be the whole, rest assured there are a great many variables/aspects/characteristics/behavior being dismissed.
The First Will Be Last
First impressions are, as the oft-repeated advice goes, very important. The strength of these first impressions is intimately tied to the degree of cognitive/emotional weight given to a situation. As noted above, that weight is shifted and focused more fully based on ideologies that parse people into singular identities, rather than whole people who contain multitudes. That said, seeing a random person on public transit will not generate many associations and you likely won’t remember them if you were to see the person later. If, however, they had been belligerent to you personally, or had engaged in behavior deemed bizarre, then later there’d be a quick judgment applied. Also, a random person will generate weaker associations than someone you’re interviewing for an important job or who shows up to take your kid out for a romantic date.
In other words, information we get about a person early in our observation of them influences how we interpret and remember everything that comes after.
Early impressions are within the same mental spectrum of bias, but they’re stronger precisely because they’re fed by other biases and themselves become one. Indeed, first impressions are encouraged to be especially defining because they’re so often associated with one’s intuition, a form of knowing felt to be pure.
Importantly here is recognizing that, whatever the limitations of first impressions may be, the influence is ongoing. We will actively interpret a person’s behavior, not based on the intent of that person, but on the story we already have of them. Further, our memory will follow suit, selectively recalling the information that fits that story as well.
It’s the Relationship
So how do we learn to mitigate these influences? How do we start to live in such a way that the lack of our access to other people’s minds is not just acknowledged but constrains our own behavior? First and foremost, we need to look at how we construct our perspectives, namely through relationship.
Perspective and the communication based off it, is too often assumed to be like lobbing a ball back and forth over an invisible line. Each person has their space and they receive the proverbial ball whole and complete exactly as intended. The complete error of this metaphor cannot be overstated. At best what is going on is the communication ball is being shaped by the interweaving of at least six variables or threads as it moves from one person to another.
Intent of person A
History of person A
Intent of person B
History of person B
Automatic biases of A and B
None of these threads are singular in themselves either. The history and intent of a person will be a build-up of learned assumptions based on all the interrelationships they’ve had throughout their lives. Nobody can have access to all that. For that matter, nobody has conscious access to all those pieces of information for themselves.
The best we can do, and it’s really not as depressing as it may initially look, is to take a pause before or very quickly after each judgment we have. Within this pause, we can consider how much the story we have about the other person is about our own judgments and the influences of our many layered context. Within that pause we can learn to listen more, speak less and seek first a greater understanding of our fellow traveler in humanity. Judgment is undoubtedly going to happen, but we don’t need to hasten its arrival.
Raised voices. Increased heartrate. Narrowed vision. All the physical hallmarks of a discussion that devolved into argumentation and conflict. That these same physical experiences can also be seen when participating in a game with a team or during intensely intimate moments with one’s partner, should make us pause. We quite quickly write a particular story to provide us direction for our behavior, but the ease with which this occurs can blind us to how else life is lived. If there’s even a shred of dissonance in your mind right now, that’s actually a good thing. Growth, personal and group related, occurs at the edges of comfort, not at the center of contentment.
Seeking Shared Values
At the heart of so much interpersonal conflict is seeing the other person or party to be devoid of anything shared with oneself. The groundwork for doing so is established through the dismissal of similarity, of what we share as human beings. It isn’t enough to rest there though, since to ‘be human’ is too vague. What we can start with is recognize our capacity to care about parts of life and identify those things through the naming of Values.
Declaring someone or a group ‘doesn’t share my/our values’ has become the go-to place for easy dismissal. The reality is that one of two things is happening: one, the means through which the value is being supported is not agreed with, and/or two, the value for which the behavior is supportive is not the same across both parties. Consider working late at your job and someone judges you for it, declaring you don’t value ‘family.’ One, this may be how you’re supporting family and two, when deciding on your behavior, the initial guiding value was of financial security or personal integrity. In both perspectives ‘family’ is not dismissed. The only person seeking to remove that value is the person passing judgment.
Notice that in the dismissal, the lack of engagement is the point. Once the other is made ‘other,’ there’s no reason for dialogue as there’s nothing in common to start the conversation. The person passing judgment wins by default of them declaring a wall around what is and isn’t a proper way of viewing your behavior. The whole of human experience is then limited to their singular place within reality. All else is subordinate. You cease to exist as an autonomous agent within the broad spectrum of human potential. There’s no exploration and therefore no possibility of growth for either party.
Life is not the book of mazes you picked up for entertainment as a child. There is no single path to the end because the end is more like a mountain range of many peaks instead of a dot on a map. This is good news as it means the potential for human flourishing is varied. You don’t have to be doing the same thing as another to find meaning, purpose and to live ethically.
The ultimate end of human acts is eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well, which all men desire; all acts are but different means chosen to arrive at it.
Connecting our behaviors to what we care about, our Values, requires stories or narratives. We move within the world through the roadways and paths laid down by our stories. Unfortunately, any time we focus too exclusively on the path we’re on, we tend to not see what’s around us, including other potential or actual paths. In this day of Google Maps it’s easy to narrowly consider one and only one way to get to a destination. However, try bringing out an old-school physical map or simply not have the AI tell you where to go, instead opting to view the broader map and decide for yourself. Odds are you’ll both see more and find routes you otherwise never would have thought possible.
Seeing the other pathways is key to understanding other people or groups. This isn’t about agreement, it’s a concern for exploring the variations in human expression. If you’re able to step back from behavior and see the story of how a Value was attached to it, suddenly there’s the potential for a dialogue that otherwise was impossible.
Dialogue has recently been receiving a bad reputation. To have a conversation with someone has suddenly been conflated with agreeing with them, as if giving someone a ‘platform,’ whatever the size, is a declaration of support. The principle simply doesn’t hold, else we’d have to say support every thought that finds itself on the platform of our conscious lives. Not sure about you, but disagreeing with things that enter my mind is part of good ethical practice.
Acceptance is the space within which disagreement has room to be healthy rather than dismissive. Acceptance isn’t agreement, nor is it lazy. Acceptance is an acknowledgment of that the state of affairs, whatever they may be, is part of the shared reality you’re in. I accept thoughts of depression, not to give them voice, but to acknowledge they’re already a voice. I accept my feelings, not because they’re always helpful, but to have them take up the space they already have instead of giving them more than they deserve.
The opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.
Accepting different behaviors is to appreciate the cognitive dissonance at the heart of life. We can disagree while acknowledging that if circumstances were different, and they most certainly have been in the past, we’d be doing things we find objectionable upon later judgment. Seeing that possibility allows us to live through the wisdom of “there but for the grace of god, go I.” Our shared humanity includes the good, the bad, the gray and uncertain. Being willing to wade into dissonance, into conflict, with a desire to understand starts with noting none of us have humanity exclusively to ourselves.
Does the clothing make the person or the person make the clothing? While this question is typically related to dresses and women, the inquiry knows no gender. At the heart of the question is a consideration of the relationship between the created and the creator, between form and function. Clothing is not simply about covering the body, it functions dependent upon the intent of the person and the social context in which it is worn.
Follow along for a moment and we’ll get to the broader issue. In Western countries we notably wear black to funerals, brighter colors to weddings. The associations cannot be overstated, with one acknowledging an ending and the other a celebration of a type of birth or beginning. We have expectations of what to be worn at job interviews, on romantic dates, to music concerts depending on the genre. Importantly for the latter, location matters as well. Rock music played in an open stadium brings a certain dress-code, whereas the same music played in a concert hall by an orchestra will inspire a different response.
If anyone is shrugging at the significance of the impact of clothing choice, simply consider the days of High School and the social shame accompanying not wearing the ‘cool’ clothes, potential violence occurring if wearing shoes that are considered ‘must-have,’ and the time and mental anxiety accompanying what to wear for school pictures and first dances. For that matter, clothing stores have created an entire sales season out of ‘Back to School’ clothes shopping. Expand this a bit and consider wearing pastels or flowery-shirts to a funeral or ragged clothes and sandals to a job interview. Perhaps doing so was to make a statement, though it is precisely because the action is so contrary to expectations that the ‘statement’ will have any power (perhaps not great consequences though).
Culture Has Intrinsic Value
Clothing is simply one aspect of culture. Included in culture are a host of other issues that would not exist were there no human beings around to build and embody them in practice; religion, governmental systems, family structures, and social expectations at various levels. An initial focus on clothing helps us consider culture more broadly by 1) noting its intimate relationship to our humanity and 2) the impossibility of removing Value.
Any reflection on being human, collectively or individually, will inevitably involve memories associated with cultural practices. It is fair to say that to be conscious is to engage socially and one cannot engage socially without doing so through culture. Little wonder that the practices of culture have so much Value, they’re the means through which we initially inter-relate with one another.
Those building blocks for human relationships, the behavioral expectations and standards for interpersonal experience, are intimately tied to Values, even as they themselves are not such. Christianity is not a Value, nor is washing one’s hands after using the bathroom, wearing black at a funeral or democracy. What those practices support are Values; Spirituality, Cleanliness, Solidarity and Social Cohesion, respectively. We appreciate those Values and seek to support them because doing so is to align ourselves with one of the most basic of human needs: providing meaning/purpose.
Culture Has No Intrinsic Meaning
It’s impossible not to give some rationale for our behavior. When someone shrugs or declares “I don’t know,” the frustration felt is in no small part due to the bone-deep belief that a reason exists which must be found. Having a rationale for events is synonymous with ‘finding an answer’ or ‘solution.’ There’s a finality to it, despite, or even sometimes because of, the perceived ridiculousness of the story being told. The more absurd, the more the story is providing an answer regardless, i.e. the person is ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘stupid’ or ‘evil.’ Such simple judgments pack the same punch as an involved story, they provide structure to the person’s experience.
What should be immediately apparent is the wide variation in our stories about behavior. Cultural practices are no exception. Religion may be the easiest example here, with group after group fighting, verbally and physically, over what is the ‘TRUE’ version of their particular mythology. Notice the Value doesn’t change, the need for Order/Spirituality remains constant. What the fight is over is the particular meaning to give to it. Does it drive behavior? Does it serve as a crutch? Does it provide a legitimate ground for morality?
When people of one group identify another as not being ‘TRUE,’ note that quite often the reasoning given is that the other simply doesn’t ‘understand’ properly. This focus on understanding as indicating legitimacy points us immediately back to the Value, but, and here’s the key, the Value as defined through the person criticizing. Cultural practices have no singular meaning because the story of their development for each person is as unique as each person’s genetic, familial and life histories. What’s often happening in debates of what is ‘TRUE’ religion (or any other cultural practice) are one’s own stories taking absolute ownership of a shared Value.
Cultural practices have no singular absolute meaning. They are derivatives of the human need to make meaning, not separate aspects of existence that people take on. To think of cultural practices as having inherent meaning is to divorce them from the humanity that gave them birth. Which is precisely where we all can contribute to a great deal of suffering.
Primacy of the Human
When considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is for the person acting it out. They will provide a story that structures the meaning the behavior has for them. Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. This is to allow reflection on 1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support and 2) direct attention to how varied the other person’s personal history is from one’s own.
Identifying the shared Value can allow for an appreciation for why the person may deeply hold to the practice. Order, Social Cohesion, Family, and Cleanliness are nothing to easily dismiss, nor likely should they be. Once it is acknowledged how much weight the building of a story through a lifetime can bring to a Value, the strength of meaning/purpose becomes readily apparent.
We don’t have to agree with a particular practice, nor do we have to agree with the rationale given in support of it. However, if healthy dialogue is going to happen then we must first acknowledge that differences exist in those stories precisely because of the shared quality of being human.
Considering culture, we simply cannot lose sight of the human as a primary concern. To divorce or separate culture from the human being is to constrain humanity to a singular vision of what ‘should be.’ Such a divorce will drive the ‘war of ideas,’ a potentially fruitful dialogue exploring human expression, to simply ‘war.’
When I was a kid there was a toy I loved, a kaleidoscope of sorts, where you looked in one end and by turning the other end, sifted grains of multi-colored sand to make different patterns. You couldn’t add any new grains, you couldn’t change the colors. The only thing you could do was change the speed with which you turned the one end. We have a tendency, as human beings, to attempt isolating one or another grain or color and believe by doing so we become capable of seeing the entire image. In fact, not just the entire image, but every potential image.
When was the last time you felt shame? Doubt? Self-criticism? Do you remember what it was about? Now, do you remember what it wasn’t about? That last question may be rather jarring. Let’s put it another way: what are you not thinking about right now? Hmm…. yeah, likely even more confusing. Let’s try something different. Pick an object, any object, around you and stare at it. Now, without looking away, describe what’s behind you. Obviously there are shortcomings to this as you may be in a familiar place, but I hope the point is made. There is an entire reality living, breathing, existing outside of your momentary perception, both in sight and in mind. So why the isolating focus on any one thing?
To have our focus be easily swayed would have really put a damper on our survival potential as a species. Were we the proverbial dog gallivanting after every ‘squirrel,’ we’d have walked off a cliff, got eaten by an animal or missed out on catching our food. In other words, we’d have died. To survive we needed the capacity to focus, which came with the tangential skill of ignoring everything else. So next time someone points out that you were ignoring them, just blame your biology. I’m kidding. Really.
Let’s come back to the shame and criticism piece. Or, if you’d like, the self-congratulatory and joyful piece. It really doesn’t matter, because you can participate in the focus/ignore process with any of the above and more. Within ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), this is called fusion, which I’ve written about here. The difficulty with fusion is that the whole of who you are and the surrounding extent of reality gets removed from consideration. And that contributes to a whole host of problems.
Depression? Focus on self-doubt and criticism and ignore the vast majority of time you’ve lived without failure. Anxiety? Focus on what has or could go wrong, ignore the vast majority of events that were either neutral or went correctly. Relationship difficulty? Focus on what she/he did wrong, ignore the majority of behavior that was loving or neutral (as a strong caveat, this is not about when abuse is occurring and if such is happening, absolutely should you remember that and use the reminder to get help).
Step outside the typical mental health therapy categories for a moment. Ever considered yourself incapable because of who you are, your gender, your family, or some other part of yourself?
Notice that as you focus on a trait, characteristic, event or identity, the ‘self’ or who you are gets more and more hidden. This doesn’t mean we get rid of these things, it does mean we consider more carefully what we’re doing when we think this way. It takes practice. That practice begins with the simple acknowledgment: “I am more than any single thought, feeling or behavior.”
As soon as shame, self-doubt and criticism occur, we can learn to reflect on what is being hidden by those labels. Here are three skills to work on:
Asking yourself: What am I not noticing? The question may seem counter-intuitive, but that jarring feeling may get you outside of the rut you find yourself in.
Change focus: bring your attention to physical sensation, like the feel of your clothes against your skin; or to an object in your immediate experience, noting as many characteristics as you can; or if you’re stuck in a memory, deliberately and imaginatively place yourself as an observer instead of a participant.
Shift perspective: pursue a different story, like the old choose your own adventure novels; imagine how someone from a different socio-cultural background would think; or deliberately change the thought/feeling by singing it or mimicking it as the voice of your favorite actor or fictional character.
Who you are is more than the sum of your parts, it’s perspective too. What we considered life-ending as children, we can usually laugh at now. Our thoughts about love and hate have gone through many evolutions as our lives have unfolded. Our smiles have gotten deeper. Our concerns have gotten broader. What we consider important has changed. This is all for the good, because the world is a lot bigger than any one of us and that means there’s always room to grow.
Ask yourself “What do I believe?” and the result will likely be a cascade of memories highlighting actions, thoughts and experiences fitting a particular set of Virtues, or Values-in-action. The whole of this cascade will provide the basis for a rather nice structure or Narrative that you can offer to yourself or another to express who you believe yourself to be. This process also has a rather powerful effect of providing a sense of continuity and rightness about your life.
What it is not is a means of selecting what is True and Correct as if from a bin of differentiated facts.
Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.
Ever put together a puzzle? If so, have you tried doing so with the image-side turned down so you only have the bland cardboard cutouts to work with? The latter is a lot harder and typically only done by those who’s desire to self-challenge is a lot higher than my own. But why is it harder? The shape of the pieces is the same and isn’t a puzzle simply about fitting them together? Alas, no, it isn’t, or at least the process isn’t that simple. Shapes matter, but so does the image we’re creating as a whole. Without consciously being aware, we have a pre-established guide of the larger image funneling the shapes to connect.
This whole-part strategy is a mechanism for weaving together disparate pieces of information. However, it’s just that, a mechanism or strategy, it doesn’t create something out of nothing, it has to work with what is given externally. Thankfully life is a whole lot bigger than any one of our perceptions, so we can create new stories quite often and even ones that are different than those of another despite having been in the same place and time.
Ever expressed a memory of childhood to a sibling and had them dispute it? Had a moment of confusion when declaring one’s view of an event only to have a spouse, friend or colleague direct attention to a different view of that same event or a piece from it that wasn’t seen? Welcome to the puzzle-making that is experience.
How does this fit with the initial “Who am I?” question. Glad you ask. We generally only talk about “life experience” once we’ve gathered a certain amount of it. As a consequence we don’t appreciate what went into creating it, taking our perception as gospel or simply the “correct” view. Not much in life feels better than being right and we go out of our way to keep that feeling alive and well.
But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
The above list of terms and quote has to do with a common metaphor used for describing human cognition: a computer. While we as human beings are inevitably going to use metaphors in helping us understand ourselves, like any other content of thought we can get too caught up in it, losing the trees for the forest. Further, if we don’t question the assumptions of our metaphor we can run ourselves directly into difficulty that otherwise could have been avoided.
Rather than looking at our minds as retrieval devices, consider instead a painter. We have the canvas of our biology, social structure, and relationships working with the paints of our senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms. Information here is not like data in a machine, a part of reality to be retrieved from within it. Rather, what we consider information/facts are the resulting images pieced together through learning processes within our own personal history.
This is not a call for a post-fact society. Nor are we getting into the swamp of declaring every opinion is the equal of any other. Such is more concerned with the functions of our learning and it’s application within different areas of life. We’re here simply considering the basic process of how we develop a worldview. And at that level, it is little wonder we love the feeling of rightness and continuity. Where we get into the weeds/swamp of difficulty is mistaking the end result of our thinking strategy with the strategy itself and declaring our personal perspective equivalent to the whole of reality itself. Talk about ego!
Where this leads us is to consider ourselves and our beliefs about the world differently. Rather than our beliefs being reflections of the world itself, they are attempts at piecing together the varieties of information our body/mind parses from within the world. Even we ourselves can be seen as paintings on a canvas, so long as we never forget there is still paint to be used and space to be painted upon.
When we stop and rest upon a single thought/idea and think we have no more room to move, the result is fusion, stagnation and anxiety as we attempt to keep reality molded to only one form. Further, such fusion makes us incapable of seeing how those around us, including our loved ones, are moving along the same process we are. When they see differently, when they express themselves in alternative fashion, they are not being contrary to a singular correct reality, but instead are working within it, just from a different vantage point.
Right and wrong still matter, but judging such doesn’t have to be the first and only means of interacting with another and ourselves. The vast majority of human behavior is an honest attempt at dealing with and working within a reality that we only see partly and yet are commonly fooled into believing we see a whole lot more of. When we consider that we ourselves, not just those we disagree with, are operating in this same learning process, we may find there’s a lot more space to move, understand and grow than we initially thought.
Aeon. “Your brain does not process information and it is not a computer – Robert Epstein | Aeon Essays.” Aeon. 18 May 2016. Web. 14 Feb. 2018. <https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer>