Situations come and go more often than we are usually comfortable admitting, in which we wish we’d done other than what we did in fact do. We may attempt to pass the behavior off as a result of hunger, sleep, another person’s actions towards us, the weather, hormones or a mental diagnosis, but all of these are simply pointers to some version of the common phrase: “that wasn’t who I really am.” In other words, we are quite comfortable with imaginatively projecting a version of ourselves who acted other than what actually happened. We empathize with, and perhaps even envy, a version of ourselves that exists only in our mind.
Explore Your Future Self
Thankfully imagination is not tied only to a past of recrimination and self-doubt. It can move into the future as well and bring with it versions of yourself that indeed do exactly what you desire to do. The same mechanism can be a tool for leaving us stuck in a past of impossibility, where we get caught up in a world that now never could be, or allow us to explore a future that we in fact do want to live in.
The nature of the present rarely allows us to consciously select what we supposedly find most important. Only in contemplating what we wish we’d done differently or in looking to how we’d like to be, does what we seemingly most highly Value come into focus. That Value is used to color an entire situation in what has become fixated as being most important.
Narrow Perspective is A Trap
There’s a trap here though, one of narrow perspective-taking. Bring to mind those occasions when something seemed to suddenly appear out of your peripheral vision. When driving and paying attention only to what’s in front of you, suddenly to have an animal dart from the side. When focused on a task and startled by someone suddenly being next to you. Perspective-taking is powerful, but it is also extremely limiting. We lose sight of what is around us. While this is great for pushing behavior in service to a goal, it is incredibly poor for keeping in mind the broader world and all its influences.
What you’re doing when using the past to pass judgment is funneling it through a present already mired in its own limitation. Values guide the selection of behavior to support them. When you say you should have done otherwise you’re effectively saying you should have cared about something differently in that moment. But that’s the problem right there, you’re no longer in that situation which existed. Further, you’re no longer the you that existed then. You’re someone new, someone who has more information than previously, someone who has the capacity to judge what has come before because there is now a ‘before’ to consider.
A Value Always Exists
The fact is that the you in the past did care about something, a Value that called out a behavior to support it. The behavior was something which, in that context, was seen as the only possible thing to do. If you pause and reflect for a moment, odds are you’ll be able to see what that Value was and perhaps acknowledge that it’s still something you care about.
Here is where the imagined you of the future can be greater than the past. It simply has more to build with. The future can be one of recognizing how in every situation is a Value that may be selected to guide behavior, yet acknowledging how there are always more Values that matter to you. Rather than getting caught in the trap of narrow perspective and risk behaving in a way that undermines or ignores a Value, you can take the time to contemplate what all there is you care about and how best to support them.
Self-control is not about control or shaming or manipulating yourself through a technique. Self-control is the flexible mental space to see the many Values that exist in a given moment and act within that greater appreciation towards the best version you believe yourself capable of being.
The future awaits the you that you want to be.
Yong, Ed. Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self. The Atlantic. December 6, 2016.
Metaphors for living are numerous; a good thing as they provide the structure through which we interact within the world. Were they shallow and few, our lives would be equally as such. The multiplicity of metaphor, like the personal narratives carrying purpose and meaning, allow us to encounter variations in life without sitting down in an overwhelmed stupor. One such metaphor is the game of billiards (though ‘marbles’ could also work here): one ball at a time moves across a table (or floor), hitting one or another ball at a time and sending each in a prescribed path according to the dictates of geometry. The means of initial movement is directed by the cue (or finger). Substitute the cue for consciousness, the ball for your body and other balls for people/objects/situations, and you have a fairly full idea of how the metaphor works.
When talking about emotions using this metaphor, phrases like ‘I had my buttons pushed’ and ‘I put my feelings on him/her’ are common. These and other phrases are based on assumptions within the metaphor: ‘Emotions Move Us’ and ‘Emotions Have A Direction.’ These assumptions culminate in the quite common phrasing of ‘I was moved’ when describing a particularly emotional event/image. At the level of immediate, self-centered awareness, this way of looking at our emotional lives seems legitimate, even obvious. Unfortunately for the continuation of this view, it isn’t that simple.
Go back to the billiards metaphor, but this time remove the cue and attach cables between the balls of varying lengths, number, tension and substance. Here is life, an interconnected whole bound by various lines vibrating with tensions as each ball moves about the table. The truly frustrating bit is how the cue has been replaced by a hovering lens with a very poor viewing area. The result is it only ever sees a part of the table and only some of the attached cables at any given moment.
Emotions are Relationships
Within the billiards metaphor, emotions and thoughts are separate objective things, moved around by conscious will. How and whether a person responds to them is then viewed as a choice by each person. The notion that ‘I can’t make you feel that’ or ‘It’s your choice to be hurt’ is based on this, as if the potential choices a person has are limitless and no longer tied to context. Once we shift to a more nuanced metaphor, how and whether a person responds to a situation is more constrained. There’s still choice, but because of the cables binding various relationships, it’s a choice with boundaries and limits.
Every relationship comes with attachments, the stories/hopes/desires/histories we bring. The words we use are the means through which we elaborate upon and flesh out the substance of all those attachments. Emotion labels are no different. They direct our attention to the cables binding us within an interconnected life.
From Our Emotions Are Never Left Behind:
“Our minds are predictive devices, attempting to set up an accurate enough framing of our upcoming experience to guide our behavior to meet it. To do so, our past is linked with input from our current context. This combination requires constant evaluative processes, often fast and far more rarely, slow.”
Emotions are a label connecting something we care about, a Value, to the object/person/situation that said Value is perceived as embodying. Do you get angry about things you don’t care about? Do you love without someone in mind? Does frustration exist without being thwarted in pursuing a goal? Our emotions are not driving us towards anything, they are the labels we place on movement we’re already engaged in. They direct our attention to the relationships we have between our Values and the people/places/things in our lives.
Emotions Are A Means, Not the End
From Emotions of Social Interaction:
“Because objective analysis of our own demeanor and behavior in emotional exchanges is so difficult, we need to understand the function of certain emotions in our social interactions, which are likely to exert more influence on what we do than what we think we’re doing.”The Emotions of Social Interaction: Psychology Today
Function implies a tool being used, like a knife to spread butter or a cup to hold a drink. Thinking this way puts us right back in the original billiards metaphor. However, pause for a moment and consider the rarity of encountering a tool that isn’t used in many ways, often outside the original intent of the designer. Who hasn’t used a paperclip to unscrew a flat-head screw? How about using the back end of a hard object, like a stapler, to push in a nail? Function here then is more than just the utilization of a tool, it is the recognition of a connection between the person using it and the goal to which it is used.
Now we’re back in a mindset of relationship.
Too often emotions are considered the end goals themselves, as if to feel happy, angry, or sad, is the end of a journey. This is based on emotions being objective simple things that we engage with, like a ball from a sport. Seeing them as labels for particular relationships not only removes this limiting vision, it enlarges personal perception to look at all the myriad ways Values are being put into action. For instance, rather than happiness itself being a goal, we can inquire and identify what within the situation it is that we care about (Value) and be more present with the actions we’ve taken to support it.
Emotions are like that accident on the freeway, we seem to not be able to stop looking at it even if it means not paying attention to our own driving. They’re loud and take up most of our perception, so it makes sense to believe that they’re central to who we are. Thankfully we are more than the blaring sirens, we have lives dedicated to what we care about. Stepping back from the noise we can become more aware of what is actually driving us (our Values) and spend our energy supporting our Values in the most life-affirming way possible.
Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash
Being ‘the real you’ is the destination of the modern person, pursuing the claim to be put in contact with the singular ‘I.’ This destination at the end of a journey, spiritual and/or existential, is, ironically, a place of stopping change. Every step along the way required working within the push and pull of social and personal influences, judging oneself with an ideal, all to reach a place where change no longer occurs. Sound strange? Consider how authenticity is often portrayed. Spoken of in near-religious reverence, the authentic person is consistent, doesn’t question who they are or what they do and above all those around feel a sense of rightness in their presence.
A Narrow Vision Supporting Judgment
While larger-than-life spiritual leaders are often looked at as being authentic, for the common person it is used almost entirely in juxtaposition to perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency. This use is where the journey of change to the destination of stagnation can be seen as horribly unhelpful. We’re supposed to cherish authenticity, yet celebrate when someone makes a change in their life. A quick addendum will show why this is a problem: the celebration comes when the change is agreed with. As soon as it’s a change that isn’t agreed with, then it’s no longer in the pursuit of authenticity, instead it’s hypocrisy.
Authenticity becomes a cudgel to use on people to tow a perceptual line, named and detailed by the vision of others. This myopic view of a person ignores the interlocking stories of their life. We are not simple creatures, locked into the 1’s and 0’s of a computer program, where we’re either on or off in line with a command. A behavior exists to support the story or Narrative a person, in a given context, has identified as important (i.e. a Value). This in no way means other things aren’t important to them, or that there are no other Narratives they’re living by.
A single person can be Sibling, Spouse, Child, Employee, Citizen, Human-being, Community-Member, Group-Member, etc. Each of these labels, only a handful, come with more Narratives attached based on personal history, education, relationships and immediate social context. Those Narratives are supporting a host of Values or what the person cares about, each triggered by a number of internal and external variables. Our lives are not straight lines and they are not doors being closed or open. We live in a matrix of competing potential identities, all vying for our attention to support behavior that, in a given context, keeps the world making sense to our perception.
An Authenticity of Inquiry Not Action
Rather than haranguing ourselves and others about an authenticity that has more to do with judgment and dismissal, we can instead ask questions. Instead of limiting our interactions to an either/or of complete agreement, we can increase our understanding of how life is working in ways we hadn’t considered.
- Given the context, what Value or concern is most important?
- How is the person framing what that Value means to them in the situation?
- With this Narrative in mind, how is the person’s behavior supporting what they care about?
These questions move us away from a simplistic view of a life journey and into an appreciation for how many pressures/desires/needs/wants/influences we’re all trying to juggle in every moment of every day. Authenticity, instead of focusing on a narrow future ideal, can be an inspiration to explore the nuances of our interaction with the many layers of life.
The election of 2012 is over, the billions of dollars spent have filled the coffers of the media conglomerates, and the finger-pointing and hand-wringing has only only just now begun. Article after article declares the alarm and sheer confusion of many in the Republican party over why the American populace would vote for a black man rather than a business-man in the face of economic uncertainty, especially with unemployment above 8% (an incumbent president hadn’t won with such a figure since 1940). Who could have predicted that this would happen?Well, as a matter of fact, someone did and that person is Nate Silver, who called every state and noted the chances of Obama’s reelection weeks if not months ahead of time. Did he consult crystals or spirits? Did he conjure up his ancestors or pray to a deity? Did he fast and pray, roll the dice or consult the stars? Nope, none of those things. What he did was crunch numbers
. Yes, numbers. Through the science of statistics he carefully calculated based on polling and demographics and behavioral history how populations would vote and came up with a probability chart. That’s right, the American hubris of possessing a laissez faire free will, unencumbered by such seemingly ridiculous things as biology and social influence, was laid low by the reality of science on public display on an Internet blog and broadcast through Twitter for all to see.
Like all real science, it’s reproducible (he called 48 of 50 states in 2008), it’s falsifiable (i.e. he could have been proven wrong) and it’s based on reasoned principles. What is absurd about this is that the factors for an Obama win were there all along, it’s why his campaign through the brilliance of Plouffe and Axelrod did what they did, focusing on state by state demographics and pinpointing just what exactly had to be done to persuade each particular group. Watching Axelrod being interviewed while results were coming in was like staring at a zen master, he already knew he’d won and was just waiting for everyone to catch up.
The fact was the numbers were there months ago but the narrative was shifted by media companies hell-bent on having a nail-biter of an election in order to drum up commercial sales. And they did so admirably, with this election cycle costing by some estimates over $6 billion (with a B). Had people taken the time to see things more objectively, they’d have seen the writing on the wall, rather than as someone I knew was lamenting the potential repeal of Obama-care while I, having noted the demographic polls weeks ago and telling everyone who asked that I wasn’t worried, was simply curious as to particular bills being passed in this here great state of Washington. This isn’t to point out my superiority, if anything the fact that I wasn’t worried is predicated upon an acknowledgement of the over-looked and deliberately unseen simplicity of human behavior, not on any achievement of my own.
Here’s the thing, people don’t make “decisions” in a vacuum. We laud our phenomenological experience, this internal feeling of what “x” is and forget that the entirety of the experience would be impossible without it being embedded in a framework of socio-cultural ideological structures and that being further embraced in an encompassing biology and neurology of humanity and even greater systems beyond that.
I am reminded, as I often am when pondering human actions, of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series, more particularly the book “God-Emperor of Dune,” one of the greatest if not the greatest sci-fi epics of all time. In it the character Leto II presides over a universe of human colonies all of whom chafe under his despotic regime and the powers of his mental prescience. Leto’s “golden path” is, ironically, his own destruction, as he hopes to create a situation whereby humans finally get outside of their biological and therefore predictable behavior and do something truly free, in this case the result being to overthrow him. While a discussion of whether this is possible is for another entry, the point here is that with enough knowledge the behavior of human beings can be, despite their feelings and protestations to the contrary, predicted. And that means we do not have the type of free will we all naively hope for and promote as the foundation of ethical decision-making.
The humor (at least it’s amusing to me anyway) here is that if we did in fact possess such a form of free will that was in no way predicated upon any natural laws we’d stare at it in horror, for behavior would have no order. We see this in how we look at the disparity in people’s behavior not as indications of free will but as hypocrisy. If such was the rule not the outlier we’d live in chaos and lament never knowing or trusting what anybody was going to do.
Indications like Silver’s work that we do not possess a-contextual free will should not be cause for a great gnashing of teeth however (though it’s definitely going to make political campaigns increasingly dull). Rather, by recognizing ourselves as being “nested” (to use Ken Wilber’s term) in greater levels of reality and all of it subject to scientific analysis, we can take an ever greater possession of ourselves and open up behavioral possibilities that, in a spirit of ignorance, were unavailable to us previously. Knowledge by the powerful can be used to control the ignorant masses, but knowledge by the masses can topple the powerful and create a freer world.
A vigorous democracy is built upon the education and rational faculties of its citizens, participating in this great social experiment of true discourse and the parsing of existence and human connection through scientific inquiry. Exploring the depths of our internal experience and creating an ever-increasing space for action will not occur if we ignore the physio-material existence in which we find ourselves, but rather in the continued exploration and delineation of it. As Thomas Jefferson noted: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
© David Teachout