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>
Exploring the so-called “replication problem” in psychological research, in particular focusing on “the Marshmallow Test.” Looking at issues about replication, definition and the nature of complexity in studying people.
Check out this episode!
“Because of the way the Reproducibility Project was conducted, its results say little about the overall reliability of the psychology papers it tried to validate, he argues. “The number of studies that actually did fail to replicate is about the number you would expect to fail to replicate by chance alone — even if all the original studies had shown true effects.”
Psychology’s reproducibility problem is exaggerated – say psychologists
“The problem is that scholars have known for decades that affluence and poverty shape the ability to delay gratification. Writing in 1974, Mischel observed that waiting for the larger reward was not only a trait of the individual but also depended on people’s expectancies and experience. If researchers were unreliable in their promise to return with two marshmallows, anyone would soon learn to seize the moment and eat the treat. He illustrated this with an example of lower-class black residents in Trinidad who fared poorly on the test when it was administered by white people, who had a history of breaking their promises. Following this logic, multiple studies over the years have confirmed that people living in poverty or who experience chaotic futures tend to prefer the sure thing now over waiting for a larger reward that might never come. But if this has been known for years, where is the replication crisis?”
Try to Resist Misinterpreting the Marshmallow Test
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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.
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Emily Dickinson wrote: “Anger as soon as fed is dead – ‘Tis starving makes it fat.” In these days of political polarization and the dissolution of relationships based on singular points of difference, it seems on the face of it that anger is quite glutted. On the opposite side of the self-reflective spectrum, anger is looked upon as being wrong or an indication of personal failure. Statements like “I lost control of my anger” or “I was overwhelmed,” are common. For both the path of gluttony and the path of scarcity, the unhelpful assumption is a lack of separation between the emotion of anger and the actions it is seen to support.
Take A Breath: Anger is Ok
Last time I looked in the mirror, talked with friends and relatives, and people-watched through office windows and passing vehicles, I noticed we’re still all human. Remembering that means recognizing we’re all in this world attempting to live lives of meaning and purpose, while doing so in as consistent a way as any of us know how. The initial step on this journey is identifying what’s important to us in any given moment. The means of doing so is the automatic system of emotional valuation.
What our emotional system does is remind us both of our shared humanity and our care for how that humanity shows up in action. Certainly there are variations of depth in our caring, with some situations or moments standing out more than others and at different times changing in intensity and focus. This is due to the way our minds frame our experiences, consider it like the lines on a connect-the-dots puzzle. What we’re concerned with here though are the dots, or immediate emotional judgments.
This immediacy and inherent humanity of our emotional valuing is why, looked at alone, there’s nothing wrong with anger or any other emotion. They just are. You or anyone else is not broken or damaged goods because you get upset about an action or experience. This can be difficult to accept because we’re so quick to connect our feelings with particular behavior, but this fusion does not have to limit our self-reflection, it does not have to lead to condemning our capacity to care about our lives and the world around us.
Take A Breath: Anger Is Not All You Are
The immediate danger of looking at anger as bound to particular behavior is how easily it then becomes to define the whole of who you are by a single internal reaction. I’ve lost count the number of times someone has said “I’m just an angry person.” When caught up in the moment, when not pausing to reflect, when not taking a breath and remembering the width and depth of our humanity, this statement makes a certain intuitive sense. Sadly, it sets the stage for seeing only those times we’ve acted in ways outside of the best versions of ourselves. It removes the branches of our individual life-trees and leaves only a long stump of bitterness and regret.
Pausing to take a breath is the first step towards mindfully reflecting on ourselves as whole people, possessed of many thoughts, emotions and a near-infinite potential for behavior. Doing so can be done by following basic instructions:
- Identify the feeling and say it out loud or to yourself, using the affirmation: “I’m feeling angry (or any other emotion) and I’m ok.”
- If able and safe to do so, close your eyes and take a breath, holding it for a brief moment and then letting it go
- Repeat step 1 and 2 while noting all the other thoughts clambering for attention as they speed by your awareness
- When caught up in one or more of those thoughts and emotions, calmly bring yourself back to a focus on the breath and the affirmation
- With each breath, be aware of how you are observing these thoughts and emotions but are not bound to them, for they pass you by and you remain
Take A Breath: Release
Pausing before further action does not mean you no longer care about what triggered you. Breathing is not a replacement for engaging in an effort to change what is considered unhealthy or a violation. There is the world and there is the way we hope the world, or even just our little part of it, would be. Being angry is a reminder of that hope. What mindful reflection provides us is the space to release our automatic or habitual behaviors and explore ways to engage that reflect the best versions of ourselves.
If you are wanting help in this journey of releasing yourself into a greater appreciation of who you are and what you are capable of doing, please contact me for therapy or coaching.
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
“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’
I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll
The humor of impossible thoughts is found in our refusal to consider any of our own thoughts as belonging there. Why of course someone else might think the impossible, but not me, says the self-assured mind of every human being. We are dedicated to our picture of reality. What each of us considers wrong or impossible says a great deal about that ideological perspective. To practice pondering the impossible is to step outside our mental boundaries and see what wasn’t caught in our framing.
Traveling down the road of the impossible is filled with anxiety. The depth to which we rely on our sense of being right and our belief that the vision of reality we hold is wholly accurate cannot be overstated. Consider for a moment a time when you found out you were wrong about something important, that sense of being off-balance and the gut-wrenching concern over what else you may have mistaken. For most of us that experience is short-lived, our minds eagerly moving on to what is more basic to human experience, that of feeling right, even if it is feeling right about having been wrong.
While the road of the impossible is not one of ease, it is an inevitable journey each takes with every realization that a small or larger piece of our worldview no longer is able to shape the experiences we’re having into a workable whole. The anxiety involved can be a seen as a form of aggression, us seeking to hold our experience within a particular set of boundaries and the larger reality pushing back, a bending and bowing out the frame. Which brings us to fundamentalism:
“In its avoidance of difference and diversity, in its turning its back on tolerance, fundamentalism is actually terrified of aggression. In fact, fundamentalism seeks to manage aggression out of existence.” (Samuels, 2005)
Contrary to the picture of the fundamentalist, particularly the religious kind, being a gun or flag-waving belligerent, the outward display hides a deep-seated need for the world itself to no longer be pushing against the boundaries they’ve set up. Let’s face it, if the world completely and utterly conformed to the dictator’s or zealot’s every ideological whim, there’d never be a perceived need to do anything by force. It is precisely because the world and every person in it exists in varying degrees of freedom that some form of force is committed, though always with the hope of eventually creating a world where nothing ever steps outside the constraints of their perspective.
“Fundamentalism offers fundamentalists a chance to avoid the knock-on effects of an encounter with social, cultural and political differences. The fundamentalist self is thereby protected from inner and outer experiences of conflict and aggression within the self. Aggressive rhetoric and pronouncements made by fundamentalist leaders are not the same as the ordinary reciprocal aggression engendered by a real and mutually enhancing meeting with someone or something strange and new… Such pronouncements construct a perimeter within which aggression does not show itself.” (Samuels, 2005)
That world of ease and lack of aggressive push-back is precisely why fundamentalism is a form of psychological escapism. Whether we ourselves are using it to some degree or fascinated by someone else wrapping themselves in it, the enticement is universal. Make no mistake, fundamentalism is not itself constrained by ideology. It is not a force found only in religious circles or despot-leaning political ideologies.
When we come across something that doesn’t fit neatly in our picture of the world, that initial pushback is fundamentalism’s sweet voice. Our avoidance is concerned with not wanting to deal with the aggression of a reality bigger than any one of us. When labeling a person to dismiss them, it is fundamentalism making barriers. What differentiates a ‘true believer’ from a ‘false’ one becomes a way of establishing the echo chambers of personal security. Declaring our personal experience sacrosanct and incapable of being criticized is the force of fundamentalism attempting to limit reality to the confines of our need to be right.
The lure of dogmatic belief or fundamentalism is one we are all prone to and it is insidious precisely because the end result, that of feeling right, is so basic to our continued living within a world that constantly and often in surprising ways, reminds us of our limits. Denying those limits through mental escapism will only ever blind us to the expansive reality waiting to be explored.
© David Teachout
Featured image provided by Unsplash‘s David Marcu
Samuels, A. (2005). Fundamentalism – Its Appeal to “Them” and Fascination for “Us.” Psychology, 20(4), 52–55.