Stories are how we bind individual perception and social reality. Consider from a nautical metaphor, where stories are the lines connecting individual boats with the social pier. Sure, the boat exists but until it gets close enough to dock, the details of its make are uncertain and the quality of its captain is unclear. Without stories, nobody would have access to the inner worlds of others. Further, without them, the substance of who we are would be dismally small, cut off from the expanding presence of so many other perspectives. A dock without boats is a sad place.
Now, ‘stories’ are the narrative version of what we perceive with our senses. Think of a rock or tree. When they become ‘the rock struck me’ or ‘the tree fell over,’ we’re giving a structure to experience, providing ourselves an order to what otherwise would be a haphazard array of individual moments. It happens so seamlessly, attempting to think of experience as anything else is almost impossible. To help, consider a cartoon animation. There are many individual poses, incrementally streamed together into what we then see as movement. Much the same occurs in our brains and when we mentalize it through language, we get stories.
Weaving the World Together
This process of binding disparate pieces of reality to build the structure of our experience is why it’s so difficult to question our opinions. Further, it’s also why when our worldview is confronted, we often feel threatened or under attack. Perspective isn’t merely something we have, it’s the fundamental ground upon which we interact in and with the world. Coming back to the nautical metaphor, it’d be like someone removing and inspecting pieces of the hull from your boat as you come in to dock. Similar occurs when we question ourselves, ripping the floorboards out and letting in water. Talk about scary!
The binding process is automatic and unconscious for the vast majority of us in the majority of our lives. Ponder for a moment just where your thoughts come from, they arise without consideration fully formed and connected. Even attempting to think about your thinking requires the same process for those same thoughts are arising just as fully formed as the ones you’re attempting to contemplate! This can be amusing, but also frustrating and, when we police our thoughts from a desire to control them, is completely futile.
This is where mindfulness practices can be helpful, not for control, but for being more aware of our thoughts/impulses at any given moment. Being ‘caught up’ in a thought/feeling is to fall victim to the notion that a singular story encompasses the whole of your experience. Mindfulness helps us identify the ‘thinker behind the thinking’ and recognize how much broader our potential is than any single thought/feeling can hold.
Reliance on the Personal
As we recognize no single story can hold the entirety of our own experience, so it becomes easy to see how no single story can hold the entirety of anyone else’s experience either. I’m reminded of the movie “Stargate” where movement through different galaxies is explained. You need six points of reference to identify a destination, but you also need a place of origin. That origin is individual perspective and the destination is the story cobbled together from several points within experience.
With such an image in mind and the power of interstellar travel firmly in our imagination, it is little wonder we all rely so heavily on personal stories or ‘anecdotes’ to structure what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world.
Importantly, “anecdotal evidence” does not simply mean “my own personal experience.” There is a causal connection being made between perception and what the world is or is supposed to be. Going back to “Stargate”, we don’t select disparate points haphazardly, but with the bedrock belief that in doing so we are defining a particular location in the universe. In other words, within the world of personal belief, there exists in the space between perspective and destination a sacred connecting line of ‘WHAT IS.’
We like our stories to be right, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling them, and they certainly feel right because having that feeling means we get to move forward in the world as if we know what’s going on. Thankfully, questioning our stories doesn’t require us to act as if we’re cast adrift in a world without meaning and truth. What it does require of us is a willingness to accept the limits of perspective and to actively engage in more perspective-taking. We may not be traveling amongst the stars, at least not yet, but our universe will still get a whole lot bigger and provide a greater potential for our lives.
For a podcast further exploring this topic, check out: The Mighty Anecdote
We often create stories to address one problem, only to have it take on a life of its own. More difficult is when such a story is religion and the tendency towards absolutism is a strong psychological pull. Jung’s “The Undiscovered Self” helps us see where when dealing with fanaticism we may unwittingly pull similar tendencies from within ourselves.
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
For links to more podcasts, check out the Humanity’s Values podcast page
How our ability to shift perspective includes others and our own future selves. Trap is in thinking such stories about intent are anything more than guesswork. Reading from The Atlantic article “Self-Control is Just Empathy with Your Future Self” by Ed Yong. Every perspective and judgment is an extension of our own narrative, to get at truth means questioning even what we believe we think is right.
Check out more episodes!
Article: Self-Control is Just Empathy with Your Future Self
Triggers are a fascinating part of our humanity. Mentally, a trigger is a perception inspiring an emotional and cognitive assessment. Externally, triggers are any act or situation that provokes a perception. Importantly, what we perceive never holds the entirety of a situation. We only see what fits within our worldview. From this, a trigger is as common as the air we breath and the blood coursing through our veins. Unfortunately, because our minds evolved to be more wary of potential suffering rather than pursuing potential enjoyment, triggers get associated with what leads to heartache and uncertainty. A great deal of difficulty results because we do not separate our perception from the event itself, believing that what we see is all there is.
Down the Rabbit-Hole
Our stories or personal narratives provide the structure for our perception. They guide which parts of a situation are selected to support a particular trigger’s continued empowerment. Combine this with the human need to feel each and every opinion is right and the result is an enormous barrier to individual change. Ruminating, spiraling or obsession are only excessive forms of actions we all do. An event happens, we’re triggered, the story we have about it reinforces our response and that behavior inevitably supports the whole process. We simply don’t act unless doing so supports our narrative about the situation we’re in.
A result of focusing so strongly on negative assessments from triggers is moving away from self-reflection. The external object, whether event or person, bears the burden of responsibility. Lost is the other side of the relationship, that of the person doing the assessment.
Pushing Away Suffering
Pain is inevitable, suffering is the product of recurring focus. To get rid of pain is a fool’s errand, but suffering can be mitigated when we see our own role in its perpetuation. When triggers are viewed as inherently negative and we cease questioning our role in the perceiving end of the relationship of suffering, the result is an abdication of any responsibility. The other person holds all the cards, they possess all the power. Everything they do carries with it an inevitable connection to our hurt and limitation of self.
In an attempt at turning the table, the other person ceases being a person in their own right. Gone is any attempt at understanding the nuances of decision-making. Absent is any consideration of enlarging one’s own view of the situation. Instead, responses are automated and centered on demanding dismissal of the perceived offensive act. Further, anything contributing to the negative trigger must be removed. This, regardless of any functionality or worth the action of the other may have.
This isn’t an excuse for horrible behavior. This recognizes the varied relationship between an act and our reaction to it. When the perception of the hurt person is all that matters, simply by virtue of their suffering, there is no room for personal growth. It’s easy to look at verbal abuse and say the reactions of the person its directed at should matter. What about when it’s not abuse? What happens when it’s another person’s success or achievement?
Removing the Positive
A person who strives to better themselves is not concerned with the perceived grievances of others. Nor should they be. Engaging in exercise and losing weight to contribute to a greater self-image is not a knock against those struggling with eating disorders. Working hard to achieve business success is not a mockery of those who are poor and disenfranchised. Simply having been born in a family with greater access to societal resources is not an inherent slight against those who weren’t.
An exclusive focus on being negatively triggered by looking at success and achievement diminishes the legitimacy of any work that went into those results. Further, it closes us off to a more nuanced look at the systems in place which facilitated personal progress.
Moving from Value
We can maintain or regain a sense of empowerment without dismissing or belittling what another person has done. This involves turning back to the other player in this drama, your own self. Nobody gets upset about something they lack concern about. Flipped on its head, we only get triggered over the perception of things we care about. Here is where strength can be found:
- Identify the core Value being violated (or supported).
- Reflect on why this Value is important to you.
- Assess whether what the other person has done takes away what you Value.
The easy answer to that last question is: it doesn’t. What the other person did is far less important than you being a person who Values what is important to you. Further, by reminding yourself of what’s important, the space is open to search out what may be learned from the other person’s successes. You may not want your life to look completely like theirs, but there are many ways to express an appreciation for what you Value.
If you’re finding yourself faced with difficult emotional reactions and want to live a freer, more expressive life, I can work with you to achieve that goal. Check out Counseling or Coaching.
For further exploration, check out the podcast episode covering triggers: Our Humanity Is Being Triggered
The lucky-save is a classic story, that event awash with emotional weight, in which the person survived by the merest, slightest, of chances. Were a microphone to be present at the time, the likely most common phrase after would be “Whoa! That was lucky!” though often with a great deal more cursing involved. There’s a compilation, not for the faint of heart, on YouTube, of videos showing bare misses. It’s been viewed more than 13 million times.
These stories begin as exclamations of luck, but fast-forward a period of time and when told around drinks at a social gathering, the story shifts ever so slightly into one of personal courage and skill. The focus is no longer on how the vehicle missed, but how “I” was able to get out of the way. If one were to shift the perspective to the flip-side and note just how many people aren’t lucky in similar circumstances, the response will likely not include being invited again. Yet, the reality of chance, or luck as we like to personalize it, is the storm falls where it will. The lucky-save video compilation focus is on the person saved, yet the question of what happened to everyone else involved in the accidents isn’t considered.
This tendency to personalize chance is bound within the way we tell our personal narratives. If we consider that story-telling is essentially memory-reconstruction, then, as Daniel Schacter (2002) puts it:
“…we tend to think of memories as snapshots from family albums that, if stored properly, could be retrieved in precisely the same condition in which they were put away. But we now know that we do not record our experiences the way a camera records them. Our memories work differently. We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.”
This attribution of emotions and knowledge post-event, is part of a bias spread across humanity. “…Events that work to our disadvantage are easier to recall than those that affect us positively” (Frank, 2016). This applies to a consideration of luck with a focus on the overcoming of an obstacle. The lucky-save story is not about everything that had to be in just the right order to have survived, instead it’s about one’s own activity in narrowly missing the destructive event.
Frank (2016) takes this mental gamesmanship into the realm of financial success, noting:
“According to the Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are much more likely than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work hard. Other surveys bear this out: Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.”
However, the core psychological feature of the studies mentioned stretches far beyond financial success. Effectively, the belief of the wealthy that hard-work rather than chance led to their success, is based on the notion of individual rightness, of having personally acted in such a way as to overcome negative events. This feeling of self-right-eousness, or pride, is based on two factors: 1) confrontation with a perceived obstacle, and 2) ignorance of supporting variables.
Pride is not limited to a connection of financial success, it is a supportive feeling in any circumstance of dealing with adversity. With the political season full upon us and the central narrative for both parties being a battle between the “Haves and the Have-Nots,” the two factors of confrontation and ignorance have a lot to work with. Combined with social media’s ability to exponentially expand the reach of ego, it is not merely leaders that have become demagogues, we all are in a mad dash to manifest our individual version with upraised fists.
Thankfully our capacity to expand our perspective doesn’t require more than being actively reminded. Rather than a focus on the rightness of one’s political identity or a belief in having successfully hit upon the right group and ideology to belong to, consider all the factors that went into the journey getting there. This is not a denial of one’s personal agency so much as a broadening recognition that where we end up, whether it be within a social movement or possessing a large bank account, has at least as much to do with factors outside of our immediate control.
We do not select which ideas to believe as if from a mental sample platter, any more than business success occurs purely from personal will and effort. Ideas and their acquisition work upon and within structures as much as any business. For every governmental and legal system in place, there is a cultural and familial background. For every road travelled and delivery system utilized, there are educational opportunities and temperament that support and direct our attention to particular ideas over others.
“Economists like to talk about scarcity, but its logic doesn’t always hold up in the realm of human emotion. Gratitude, in particular, is a currency we can spend freely without fear of bankruptcy” (Frank, 2016).
By reminding ourselves to look beyond our lucky-save stories, we can appreciate all that went into and continues to exist for us to be where we are.
© David Teachout
Frank, Robert. (2016). The Atlantic. Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think
Schacter, Daniel L. (2002-05-07). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (p. 9). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
There is a seemingly innate desire for people to move forward in life as if the ideas/beliefs they’re using are theirs alone. Cobbled together from personal experience or painstakingly found by trial and error, personal ideas are owned this way and considered as having emerged from their mind and/or voice out of the silence of the universe. The image of a feverishly working artist comes to mind, shut away in their studio to avoid the impress of the outside world and all the incumbent influences therein. While certainly this rather poetic image resonates with the, largely Western, notion/value of self-autonomy, the reality is quite another experience altogether. While capable of being dismissed as merely philosophical, the question of personal identification with ideas has, like all good philosophy does, immediate and long-term effects on notions of responsibility and how we treat one another.
Truly it’s quite easy to fall into the trap that knowledge/beliefs are something pursued or grasped, it is precisely this type of language that is used to describe the personal process. From “the pursuit of knowledge” to “she grasped the point of the message,” and the additional metaphorical language of “I see” when acknowledging a new understanding, all of these examples are dependent on the physical experience of objects being in some sense external or other than the person. From this, there is an indelible and constant separation between person and object, between mind and world, between self and other.
From this framing of experience, ideas then become like selections upon a buffet table, easily capable of being passed or picked up or discarded, with the impetus for engagement centered on the person. Responsibility for one’s beliefs then becomes solely that of the individual, with humanity being apart from the world and engaging with it by sheer will alone. A contrary perspective, one that seems far more realistic, places humanity as being within or a part of the world. Ideas are not then selected buffet-style, rather are identified within interconnected webs with ourselves placed in the middle.
Let’s consider two observations that point to the notion of a web of ideas.
1. Ideas exist in a part/whole relationship with worldviews.
Ideas provide the nodes and strings for the web that is how we perceive our lives. Take any social issue, familial connection or romantic relationship and how communication difficulties arise in any of them. Words like “life” and “choice” are ideas dependent upon the assumed conclusion; roles within family dynamics are ideas connected to personal history, education and social influences; the values and desires for romantic engagement are ideas associated with previous relationship experiences, developmental dynamics and the socio-cultural notions explicitly accepted or implicitly being acted upon.
2. Personal identity determines which ideas are acceptable.
Contrary to the mythology of human beings as rational creatures, we do not ever operate outside the realm of personal bias, inner heuristics or cognitive constructs. At best what a good education and proper training in logic and reasoning will provide is an expanded means of identifying those biases and paradigms, though not in the hope of removing them so much as determining and limiting the extent to which they effect the mental paths of argumentation and justification. Rather than rational creatures, we are story-tellers, with our sense of self or identity at the center, actively selecting the pieces that build a seemingly coherent narrative. What is and is not acceptable as authoritative evidence is selected from within this matrix.
To isolate any single idea and use it to paint the whole of a person is as simplistic and ultimately false as taking a single action and doing the same. At what point in the web of ideas can anyone isolate a strand or node and declare it to be cut off from all others to encapsulate the whole of a person? Pluck a strand and the whole web starts vibrating, the degree to which dependent on how closely it is felt to be connected to one’s core.
If there is no separating out of a particular idea then the treatment of one another becomes far more complicated that merely declaring one idea wrong and telling people to change. Declarations of “if you believe in x then you’re an idiot or crazy,” or “he did this because he believes y” become not merely simple but simplistic, a hopelessly false characterization of ourselves and our social neighbors. Further, demanding immediate change when confronted with opposing evidence also becomes absurd.
Consider how one person dealing with the most incredible of argumentation can refuse the conclusions just as another person when faced with patently bad reasoning can become immediately convinced. The reality of this should make any of us pause and consider just how important a single idea ever truly is. A person cannot change any idea without repercussions with others, which also means that to change an idea requires work with changing the other connections.
Getting away from the “one idea = one action” and “one idea = one person” judgment is not easy. The simplicity of declaring a particular idea wrong is enticing when confronted with a complicated world. The ease of judgment when conflating a single idea with a particular action helps remove the potential for questioning ourselves. To start the journey of expanded understanding is to consciously stop each and every time we consider what a person says and does to ask deeper questions about how they’ve constructed their world.
Remember that we are not individuals set apart from one another, but parts of a cosmic whole.
© David Teachout