“Fear is the mind-killer.” So says the Bene Gesserit, a female-only religio-political group from the sci-fi epic series of Dune by Frank Herbert. The aphorism concerns the tendency for humanity to forget its more rational potential in the face of a lack of control. Because that’s what fear is, the perception of an upcoming loss.
Notice that fear is about the future. Fear is immediately replaced in the present by any number of other emotional assessments. If the loss was personal enough, it’s replaced by depression and/or anger. If the loss didn’t happen, it’s replaced by anxiety that it may still occur and/or relief. There’s another replacement that I want to focus on here though, that of vindication. Such occurs when fear is replaced by certainty. Whether based on an objective critical analysis or the self-serving manifestations of bias, doesn’t matter. Vindication replaces fear when the world moves forward in the way that you believe it will, whether positively or, insidiously, negatively.
Patterns are Always About Us
Pause for a moment and consider the feeling the last time something went wrong and you verbalized or thought a version of the phrase “I knew it would be bad.” Remember it? Vindication. It’s a complex feeling combining a perceived sense of control with a self-righteous belief that the world succumbed to your analysis of it. There are few things sweeter than vindication and given this definition, that makes sense, it’s attached to the belief that your singular mind captured the complexity of the whole of reality, if only for a moment. Of course that would be intoxicating. Don’t get me wrong, by “you” I am most assuredly including myself. “You” is humanity writ large. Vindication may be one of the most quintessentially human experiences in the universe.
Control and analysis/assessment are two sides of our pattern-building mental lives. From seeing images in clouds to John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” and the various “Bible Codes,” pattern-building is foundational to how our species spread across the globe and flung machines into the heavens. With control we are applying the immediacy of our emotional system, seeking a gestalt or all-encompassing picture of our experience. It is no mystery that we use the phrase “to grasp,” i.e. to hold within our power, when stating our understanding of a subject/experience. On the flip-side of control, is analysis/assessment, our long-term system, selecting pieces out of our experience to support and further our initial intuitive or unconscious understanding.
If you paused a moment at that definition of analysis, that’s a good thing, because it’s counter-intuitive. We seem, as a species, prone to the belief that our minds are picking up on or illuminating the laws and systems of the universe. Knowledge is felt to be something “out there,” for us to grasp. See, there’s that word again. Rather difficult to get away from. We instinctively feel as if the world is something other than ourselves, that we are cut off from it in some way and constantly on a journey of discovering its secrets to use for our betterment. When put that way, our hubris or excessive pride in our achievements, seems a tad silly…and inevitable. As Erich Fromm noted, we are the only species capable of believing itself removed from Paradise, of having been taken away from our union with nature. While certainly a sad story and one that lies at the heart of many religious narratives, the true sadness is how utterly and completely false that story is and our seeming genetic drive to embrace it, like bugs to a zapper.
Patterns, whether the stories of mythology, theology, the sciences and governmental systems, are all about us. Not because we’re finding out how the world works, but because we’re actively engaged within and as it. Our felt separation from the world is a result of our capacity for perspective-taking. As “Dr. Jackson” said from the movie “Stargate,” every destination needs a starting point. That starting point is the “you” you believe yourself to be. Pattern-making is our way of seeing ourselves in our experience. By doing so we mollify, moment by moment, the existential dread/fear/loneliness that comes from feeling cut off.
Be Careful of Knowing
While patterns are immensely helpful in a myriad of ways, vindication can be as much a trap as the question of “what’s one more?” can be to an addict. Think back again to that feeling of rightness when confronted with a situation gone wrong. Did it inspire any self-reflection? Did it encourage you to broaden the scope of your thinking to see if just maybe you’d missed something? Of course not. The world made sense. Things happened the way you thought they would. Questions at that point would not only be superfluous, but damaging to your sense of self. Ah, but here’s the thing and you probably know what I’m about to say (feels good, doesn’t it?). For every story we make, we hide as much of reality from ourselves as we reveal.
Take a moment and look up, letting your gaze rest on a single object. Settle your mind upon it and let your eyes go soft and lazy. Notice that everything else starts getting more hazy, less distinct. Welcome to perspective. The more we focus on a thing, the more we lose sight of. That we have coherent “images” of the world at all is because our brain is busy filling in the vast emptiness surrounding the pinprick of light entering our retina. This filler is an imaginative projection based on previous experience pushed forward as beliefs about the immediate future. We know this process is limited every time something “appears out of nowhere” and surprises the hell out of us. If we were really seeing the whole of reality AS IS, we’d never be surprised.
This is where knowing is both enticing and dangerous. To know is to see, as in “I see what you’re saying/meaning.” And just as sight is limited, so is the felt sense of our understanding. The issue here isn’t that we can’t know anything or that the various sciences of our inquiry are not telling us truths about the universe of which we are a part of, it is that all such is tentative and progressive. Thing is, we really, really don’t like uncertainty.
We Are All Conspiracy Makers
In this time of global upheaval, where many of the systems and institutions we’ve built over the centuries are showing their cracks and fault lines, conspiracies are running rampant. Poking fun at them is as time-honored of a tradition as lamenting the burning of the library of Alexandria. Really? Just me? Well, run with me here a bit anyway. We like pointing out the absurd in others, but since they’re as human as we are, it’s good to remember that with a change in circumstance or perhaps even the passing of time, we may find ourselves in a position of being just as wrong about something.
The conspiracy makers/believers are attempting to bail the same boat we are, using the same tools we are. The difference is their buckets are simply filled with more holes. We’re sailing through a storm of fear, scooping uncertainty and throwing it overboard as fast as we can. Just as one group’s cult is another group’s religion, so one person’s conspiracy is another’s knowing. They all exist to address the same problem and are actively engaged in bringing about the same feeling: vindication. Nothing feels better than the belief in our rightness.
Take a moment to ask more questions, built upon a recognition of our shared human desire to feel in control. We aren’t going to remove the silliness, but we just might see something we missed.
Photo by Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash
There’s a sense of empowerment in describing a personal experience as unique, special or otherwise different than anybody else’s. In particular when it comes to difficulty, a unique status builds a space for dismissing the wisdom of others and provides the ground for accepting its potential insurmountable quality. How often have we heard someone, when confronted by clear objective advice, say: “yes, but my situation is different”?
Certainly each situation, difficult or easy, is different in the sense of being built out of the particular variables in your life. However, at the level of principle, at the level of usable and workable life-skills, the differences are far outweighed by the similarities of both being human and living in a generally homogenous society.
People are Unique, Relationship Skills are Not
Which brings us to how particular forms of relationship are somehow intrinsically different than other forms. As a starting place, let’s consider ‘relationship’ as any form of interaction between two or more people and/or objects. The qualities that change are the depth of the connection and the extent of the effects. Because of those changes we apply different labels and judgments as to their meaning and importance.
Let’s be clear: you have as much of a relationship, at this base level, with the chair you’re sitting on as you do with the person you’re having sex with. If you don’t believe me, imagine that chair suddenly disappearing and you having an immediate intimate connection between your backside and the hard floor beneath you. Yes there was a relationship involved and just because you took it for granted doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. In fact, that very lack of awareness is often at the heart of so many difficulties in any form of relationship.
Monogamy vs Polyamory
With this understanding of ‘relationship’ in mind, we can look at two general labels or forms of relationship: monogamy and polyamory. Broadly speaking, the difference between the two is the latter allows for, if not is always engaged with, more than one sexual partner, usually with the intention of doing so within an agreed-upon level of commitment. That latter point of commitment distinguishes polyamory from, say, swinging. Honestly, there are numerous ways of looking at this and the point isn’t to get bogged down in minutiae.
Below, you’ll see a Venn diagram of “Relationship Problems” within monogamy and polyamory. This is not supposed to be indicative of how everyone views the differences, it’s just an example, albeit one with a list that seems to be offered up quite regularly.
Relationship Problems = Being Human
Let’s get the conclusion being offered here, contrary to the diagram, out of the way: there is simply no relationship problem that is different in kind between any form of relationship. The differences are always the particular variables involved, not some issue uniquely found within a particular relationship form. Further, the skills needed to address problems are generalizable across all the forms.
All of the problems here indicated are quite possible in any relationship between two or more consenting human beings. What the form of relationship will change is the quantity of the type of problem being dealt with and differences in the, hopefully discussed, agreements made between those involved.
Take for instance ‘hierarchy,’ a problem that supposedly only exists in polyamory. The complaints that “he’s married to his job” or “I’m a gamer widow” come to mind and those are just two. The inevitability of making choices concerning the priorities of interests is not solely the purview of a particular relationship form. The type of choices available will change, but that’s true of every relationship.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in monogamous relationships who believe they’ll never have a problem with their partner loving someone else more or having to deal with being a priority.
On the other side, take “wanting to be intimate with other people.” To say this isn’t a problem within polyamory is to offer an idealized form rather than any practical reality. One of the stereotypes often encountered by people who label themselves polyamorous is the assumption they want to have sex with any and everyone. Not only is this not true, but typically the desire, when it does arise, is not immediately acted on without concern or discussion with the others involved. In that sense, the desire (a profoundly human emotional inevitability) is a problem, it’s just being handled differently and, hopefully, with a lot less melodrama.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in polyamorous relationships who think they’ll never have to worry about being bored, or being concerned about whether they or one of their partners is getting too close to someone else.
What a Different Form Can Help With
The issue here is one of exclusivity, a belief that a form of relational connection cuts you off from potential struggles of being human. The problem with a hyper-focus on differences in relationship forms is two-fold:
One: there is much wisdom to be found from people engaging in different forms that can be of immense use in whatever form you’re currently involved in and…
Two: believing the form of relationship you’re in excludes you from having particular problems will result in being blindsided when they do happen.
What a look at different forms can give us is an appreciation for the vast potential in human connectivity. It is truly beautiful and wisdom is found in seeing how different forms deal with problems that arise. There are undoubtedly numerous behaviors that can be used in your form of relationship without compromising the agreements you have with your partner(s). Taking a look can be part of any journey you’re on with whoever is with you.
Viewing emotions as discrete entities allows us to box them up, set them aside and ignore them. Or at least attempt to do so. Quite often we look at them as obstacles to overcome, giant boulders on the path of life. We move forward using the supposed power of reason, swinging the sword of logic and embarking on a quest to change our thoughts. Within this framework for personal progress we experience a sense of being overwhelmed, overcome by or otherwise brought down. Emotions are then a beast to be slain. However, like the beast from the fairy tale, the perceived monster hides a deeper truth.
Emotions Are Thoughts
“In fact, every supposed emotional brain region has also been implicated in creating non-emotional events, such as thoughts and perceptions.” (Barrett, 2017)
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.
With this in mind, we can look at our emotions as the initial conclusion of a fast evaluation. Our bodies react and, depending on context, the sensation is immediately evaluated as an emotion. This allows us to have those instinctive or intuitive responses of trust or distrust when meeting someone new. And, because the same or similar body sensation can be linked to multiple emotional evaluations, a gut-feeling can point to us being possibly sick, excited about a romantic evening or be wary of a new job. Our emotions, rather than being detrimental to our behavior, are the initial set-up for deciding how we will respond to new environments.
Emotions Are Agents of Attention
“The “emotion circuits of the brain” that are activated when we have an emotionally engaging experience also serve as evaluative centers that directly influence our focus of attention and our state of arousal.” (Siegel, 2012)
Carried with the emotional evaluation is a broader mental framing. While our intuition may leave us wondering why we felt a certain way, it only takes some time to come up with a story as to why. How much time is dependent on how fast we perceive the need to do so. Walking down a dark alley and feeling a sense of dread will be accompanied by a very quick story of potential danger. Saying yes to a new romantic connection will carry with it a sense of apprehension or excitement, followed by a story of life’s difficulties or successes, depending on how the date went.
Important to keep in mind here is our stories are just as fluid as our emotions, they respond to the current information at hand. This is constantly shifting. Only by simplifying our relationship with our internal lives do we create a sense of ‘I always knew that’ or ‘of course it turned out that way.’
Emotions Are A Relationship
“Feeling is not bad or dangerous or unhealthy.On the contrary, not feeling or fighting against what we are feeling is a more formidable threat to our health and well-being. Our relationships with our feelings are often at least as important as the feelings themselves.” (Mahoney, 2005)
We can see our lives as full of potential or as a halting walk from one wall to another. Either will find support based on how we view our internal life of emotion/thought. Seeing our emotions as obstacles to overcome sets up a constant battle. We will never get rid of our emotions nor their influence precisely because they are not separate items in our minds to be discarded at will. Seeing our emotions as part of how we construct our perspective on the road to acting out our lives allows us to accept the entirety of our humanity. We can then commit to exploring our stories, finding the nooks and crannies waiting for the light of discovery to illuminate, and step into new visions of who we are.
For help and support in working through your emotional life, check out counseling and coaching
Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2017-03-07). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Kindle Location 523). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Mahoney, M. (2005). Constructive psychotherapy: Theory and practice. United States: Guilford Publications.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-26). The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (p. 73). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.
America’s most powerful social product may very well be that of the politicized identity. Pick a label, shove the entirety of a person into it, then use this narrow caricature to condemn, belittle, dismiss, celebrate and worship, depending on whether you like or don’t like said label. Any attempt at bringing up dialogue, suggesting that a person is more than any singular act or name, is met with varying degrees of disgust and declarations of not being a true ‘x.’ What that ‘x’ is inevitably centers upon the easiest and quickest way to differentiate that person as other, as different. Don’t agree with me? Well, it must mean you’re not a true Christian, Atheist, Liberal, Conservative, Democrat, Republican, Jew, Muslim, etc. The result of this slicing up of our humanity is a bloody floor littered with the ruins of potential conversations, personal growth and democracy.
Disagreement is inevitable, vilification is not. For every person who has an opinion that is inaccurate, that very same person has one that is/was true. Every person who has lied, cheated, or said something foul, that very same person has likely loved, cherished and said something supportive. We are amazingly capable of calling out our own moral failures as blips on the channel of our right-ness. Yet we dismiss the other person’s moral failings as intrinsic and unchanging qualities of their programming. Our humanity, the shared reality of what it is to be a human being, provides us the space to be both liar and saint, villain and hero, often within the same episode of our lives. The focus on one over another is not a sign of progress, it is promoting the myth of self-righteous authoritarianism.
What each of us cares about is not so different than anyone else. Our Values are universal, the behavior we use to manifest them is most certainly not. How a person gets from a Value to a Behavior is through their perspective/worldview. Simplistic labeling moves us right past what we have in common as human beings and places the entirety of our emphasis on a single sliver of behavior among the vast panoply of human life.
An Issue of Labeling
Labeling and calling names is empowering, it’s why we do it. If we can define the entirety of a person by a single biological fact, behavior, or idea then that person no longer has the power to step outside, in our eyes, of what we have proscribed for them. By this limitation we need never consider what role any of our actions may have had in their life or humbly submit ourselves to the realization that had our own lives been different we may be acting or voicing the opinions which we are currently condemning.
Beginning with what we have in common is not about dismissing the very real harm done through bigotry, hate and fear. What it does is remove the automatic association between what we care about and our behavior. Doing so recognizes that all of us act on our interests and for the promotion of what we care about, while also allowing for disagreement on the means. This keeps open the potential for change, for even the subtlest of shifts in worldview, because if two or more people care about the same thing and show it differently, then there is undoubtedly more ways of doing so, ways that are less destructive and more communal. A focus on what we do not have in common leads only to continued separation and various forms of open warfare.
Our shared humanity does not call us to agree about everything or to ignore pain and suffering. What it does is remind us that we are still connected to one another despite our disagreements and that one person’s pain and suffering can exist even as another’s does as well. Our growth as individuals and as a species will be based not on who is ‘true’ to a label, but upon whether we’re able to break free of the constraints such names make upon our behavior.
© David Teachout
Overwrought declarations concerning the security of a nation’s people is the bread and butter of modern politics. Every potential leader of the self-proclaimed free world attempts to outdo another with over-confident pronouncements of their ability to defeat the enemy and keep us all safe. Just who “the enemy” remains to be, years and decades down the road of military engagements, is left to the practice of reinforcing memories of great emotional power. The notion of having nuanced, layered, dialogue about the variables involved in warfare and the attempt at destroying ideas with bombs is never broached. In fact, the closest we get to a conversation of this type is an almost adolescent obsession with labels.
Regardless of this lack of acknowledging the complications involved with international ideological warfare, rest assured that each potential leader will offer their variation of, quoting Obama: “Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us.” However, the how of a war’s delivery is at least as important as exploring the why of its start and continuation. The why helps us identify the worldview and values we bring to what should be the last resort of inter-personal behavior. The how determines whether once committed we don’t lose sight of the better angels of our nature.
No form more perfectly embodies the way America does warfare than the focus on air power and drones.
1. Depersonalized Technology
From the latest gadget coming out of Silicon Valley to the ability to reach the upper reaches of our stratosphere with almost casual indifference, the power of technology is a social obsession even as it so quickly becomes banal.
“To the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain. At the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly—I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will—then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.” — Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an interview with Foreign Affairs.
There is a curious and frightening aspect of human psychology that only the personal is deemed worthy of exploration, because only the personal has any emotional power attached to it. What technology provides for us is a means of distancing our potential emotional connections. We need never question what use it is being put to beyond our immediate surroundings.
“In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.” (Tom Dispatch)
Unfortunately, our immediate environment is constrained by the extent of the questioning we bring to any situation. We have then a causal loop of insularity, with technology removing us from considerations of consequence, which then limits our ability to see beyond our own neighborhoods, our own borders.
“Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive. That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground. It can’t dig in. It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.” It can’t sustain persuasive force. Its force is always staccato and episodic.” (Tom Dispatch)
This lack of consequentialist thinking removes us from consideration of our goals. It should be shocking to hear of 12,000 drone strikes in a war that has gone on for 15 years. There are teenagers who have never known a time in America’s history where war was not a constant. Yet questions are rarely raised.
2. Lack of Questions Leads to Moral Ambiguity
U.S. Policy Standards for Use of Force:
“Lethal force will not be proposed or pursued as punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian court or a military commission. Lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.”
Solutions to ethical questions about the use of force are not easy and they are certainly not simple. What is equally not simple are the consequences of the continued use of force.
From Foreign Policy
: “However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced.”
When the form of force being used is fundamentally about providing increasing distance between the users and the place of effect, then it becomes even more imperative that we actively engage in seeking to explore those consequences. Unfortunately, as noted above, what is deemed not personal is rarely explored. Worse, what is not personal to the user may in fact be deeply personal to those suffering the effects.
From The New York Times
: “The proliferating mistakes have given drones a sinister reputation in Pakistan and Yemen and have provoked a powerful anti-American backlash in the Muslim world.”
“Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are? Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted. When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”? Here’s a hint: we didn’t.” (Tom Dispatch
The users of technology are not different than those who have to deal with the effects. The lack of face-to-face delivery offers a physical distance that allows for moral ambiguity to grow and cognitive dissonance to not be dealt with. There are articles upon articles about online bullying and how the modern internet age of removing face-to-face interaction contributes to a lack of empathy and therefore a rise in behavior otherwise considered abhorrent and not acted upon. This process is no different in other forms of technology use, yet the consequences within warfare are generational in scope.
The Responsibility of War
“The utilization of force should carry with it the fullest attempt at matching projected action with internal value. If the action ceases to reflect or even begins to tarnish the value it seeks to support, then force and violence become less a tool of last resort and more a hammer seeking nails wherever they may be found. This connection is why it is incumbent upon the population and their representatives to do the utmost diligence in deciding when to use force. We have tasked our soldiers not merely with the protection of our national interests, but to do so at the cost of their lives and pieces of their humanity.” (Reflecting on the Armed Forces: The Other 1%)
“For a democracy committed to being a great military power, its leaders professing to believe that war can serve transcendent purposes, the allocation of responsibility for war qualifies as a matter of profound importance.” (Bacevich, 2013)
When we are no longer aware of or find ourselves much concerned with how our government conducts itself in the utilization of deadly force, this should serve as a scarlet flag waving upon our conscience. Yes, warfare seems to remain a necessary tool in the continued evolution of our fledgling civilization. No, warfare should not be dealt with heads held low and minds shut-down to consequence. We are not tasked as citizens of this world to merely ponder the importance of our singular lives, but to reach out and drive back the shadows of our own self-deceit.
© David Teachout
Bacevich, Andrew J. (2013-09-10). Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (American Empire Project) (p. 41). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.