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And So It Goes

It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on what makes grownups act like children, but with the US presidential campaigns kicking into high gear, this seems like a good time. Our conventional idea of an “adult” is a person who is rational and reasonable, reflective and responsible, who is emotionally centered, well-adjusted, and gets along with others.

We have a general expectation that children will grow into adults and act less like children as they enter maturity.

And our expectation is disappointed, again and again, not just by other people but even ourselves. Something happens that is hard to explain; and when it’s over we prefer not to spend time reflecting on what the hell just went down. Once the dust has settled, we’d rather move on and try to forget about it.

But then it happens again … and again, and again.

These strange behavioral episodes are what I call Neurotic Styles. Think of them as coping strategies we learned when we were children, ways of working around the dysfunction and deficiencies in our family system. From infancy and onward through the early years of childhood we needed to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I have named our “feeling-needs” or “subjective needs.”

The taller powers responsible for our health and wellbeing were either first-time parents who didn’t know better, distracted parents who didn’t notice, absent parents who weren’t around, or abusive parents who violated our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Even the most attentive and caring parents slip up once in a while.

But it wasn’t all on them. We had our own selfish impulses and impossible demands that every conscientious parent has to somehow manage and train into socially acceptable behavior. We might have been particularly ungovernable, which would have taxed their patience and parenting skills, provoking responses that added new layers to the mess.

After all, domesticating an animal nature into a well-behaved socialite was no simple process – and never has been.

Our subjective needs were not negotiable. We couldn’t just skip over our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Because they are about our need to feel a certain way in our nervous system and emotions (together generating our mood), it is possible that our external circumstances were fully adequate but still not enough because we had become so discontent, distressed, or depressed.

If there was in fact a sufficient supply of loving care provided to us, we might have had the additional demand that our parent (or whomever) make us feel safe because of some deeper insecurities we were carrying. This value-add of our anxiety motivated us to reach out and grab on to the other person in neurotic attachment, which are not conditions where love can take root and grow.

So our insistence that the other person make us feel safe actually interfered with our need to feel loved. See how that works – or doesn’t?

That behavior strategy of replacing love with attachment so we can feel safe is one common example of how we used our power to manipulate others. We may also have used our power to flatter and impress others in a misguided pursuit of feeling loved. Or we discovered that we could use our power to intimidate or seduce them and get what we wanted.

These are various “power plays” which, when successful enough and repeated on subsequent occasions, eventually got coded into our behavioral repertoire. They became our Neurotic Styles. Other Styles have less to do with manipulating other people than engaging in behaviors that helped us manage our anxiety, stay vigilant to potential threats, or retreat into ourselves for safety.

The important thing to understand is that, at least to some extent, these strategies worked in satisfying our feeling-needs, even if our family system wasn’t all that provident.

We were children back then: small, dependent, vulnerable, and weak in comparison with our taller powers. In order to get our needs met we found our way around. Our individual set of Neurotic Styles were incorporated into our developing personality, and we used them whenever we felt the situation warranted – although they were not really consciously selected so much as “triggered” by events around us.

But here’s the problem. Our personality as children was a complex of playful imagination, magical thinking, emotional reasoning, and these Neurotic Styles. Today this same complex lives on beneath higher processes of instrumental reason, logical thinking, and adult self-control – that is, until our “button” is pushed.

When that happens, our Inner Child breaks out and deploys a tactic of childish behavior, which may have worked when we were children but now only manages to turn heads, roll eyes, and convince others that we aren’t safe to be around.

For the past four years, Donald Trump’s Inner Child has manipulated the Grand Ole Party, a good swath of the American population, and undermined the establishment of democracy itself. In one interview after another, he shirks responsibility and passes blame, ignores or outright dismisses empirical science and objective data, loses his temper and calls people names. He seduces others into his inner circle and then excommunicates them with dishonor if they should dare contradict or challenge his opinion.

As the campaigns ramp up to November, the stress of it all – our tipping toward fascism, the ravaging waves of COVID-19 and continuing collapse of our economy, the rise of bigotry, prejudice, and violence on our streets, along with the now unmistakable (and undeniable) signs of unraveling ecosystems across our planet – all of it is making us feel threatened and helpless.

Our Inner Child is peaking out from under the covers, hoping that some taller power will arrive with a reassuring promise to protect us from the monster.

This is precisely when we need to get our own Higher Self into the game. There is real work to be done, including the repair of some serious damage to our race relations, community welfare, ethical integrity, and self-confidence. In November we must elect a fully functioning adult to presidential leadership, one who is self-possessed and genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of our families, neighborhoods, cities, states, nation and international commons, including the fragile yet still resilient web of life on our planet.

For this to happen, we need to be adults and do our part.

 

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A Nation of Children

I see and hear comments in the media, about how we have elected “a toddler” to the White House. Obviously what they mean to say is that our president behaves like a child – not imaginative and playful and innocent, but reactive and manipulative and narcissistic; not so much childlike as childish.

It does strike me as odd how long-standing Republicans and reluctant Trump supporters that I know are willing to overlook these traits. We would have been even worse off, they say, had we elected Hillary as president. Apparently Donald Trump was the lesser of two evils. While all politicians have a shadow – and of course we need to admit that each one of us has a shadow side as well – I wonder if Trump’s “dark side” is something our nation and the world can bear for very much longer.

Trump supporters frequently say they voted for him because he “tells it like it is” and that he’s not afraid to “take what belongs to him” – which presumably, with him acting on our behalf, will also translate into taking (back) what is ours. And that may be true … for wealthy, white, heterosexual male citizens and corporate executives in these United States.

That’s not all of us, for sure; indeed it’s only a very small percentage of our population. And the fact that Trump himself belongs to that exclusive and elite group doesn’t seem to matter.

Putting partisan politics aside, I’d like to analyze the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency not in terms of political philosophies, moral values, or as the final ascendancy of capitalism (wealth, individualism, private ownership) over democracy (equity, communalism, public access) out of the historically creative tension of these two ideologies. Instead I will contemplate how this kind of person arrived at the helm of our nation’s leadership.

My theory is that Trump’s election is symptomatic of something going on in each of us – or at least in most of us, even if “most of us” (i.e., the majority) didn’t actually vote him into office. I’m thinking of our nation on the analogy of an individual human being: each of us has an animal nature (our biophysical body), an inner child where we process life experiences and respond emotionally, and a higher self that enables us to take a more rational perspective in constructing a larger and longer meaning of life.

Now as adults, the pattern of reflexes, moods, strategies, and beliefs that formed when we were children is still carried within us, in an emotional complex called our inner child. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that part of us that gets triggered by stress, illness, hunger, pain, and loss (or the threat of these). Our emotional inner child is oriented and motivated by a desire for security, that there is enough of what we need and we can trust those around us.

Because we weren’t in control of the world back then, we relied on our taller powers for what we needed. And because they had their own inner children that got triggered occasionally (or chronically), we had to devise means of getting our way when they didn’t deliver, interfered, or weren’t around to help.

These ‘adaptive strategies’ soon became our modi operandi when things didn’t go our way, and for the most part they worked, if not entirely or all the time.

As our strategies were really intended to manipulate the outer world in order to get what we needed and feel secure (safe, loved, capable, and worthy), I prefer to call them neurotic styles. It is these which partly make up that emotional complex of our inner child. When we feel threatened somehow, our insecurity is triggered and those old patterns turn on and take over. From the perspective of other adults around us, we are suddenly being childish, unreasonable, selfish, and neurotic. And it’s true.

When life is manageably stable and we have enough of what we need, our higher self can lead the way. We can take in the larger picture and see farther down the road. We can project alternative scenarios of the future, consider different sides of an issue, include others in our decisions, take responsibility for our actions, and be mindful of how our choices affect the systems to which we belong.

When our higher self is engaged, we tend to vote for candidates who demonstrate these same virtues of adult rationality.

But when our security is threatened, whether by changing conditions and actual events, or because some alarmist has triggered our fear response, it’s more challenging to keep our higher self online. Instead, our inner child takes over. The inner child of candidate Trump said just the right things to make a large swath of American voters believe that their America had been stolen from them and they had the right to take it back.

Back from China and its cheap tricks. Back from Mexico and its drug lords. Back from cheating trade partners. Back from Big Government regulators. Back from Blacks, from women, and from homosexuals. Back from the poor, insofar as they are freeloaders on our wealth and freedom.

Soon America will be “great again.”

His tantrums sounded bold and confident. He could be guilty of narcissism, if he didn’t have our best interests at heart. Finally, someone showed up who could speak power to truth and confirm what we had been afraid of all along. Does it matter that he says and does whatever it takes to get his way – what I coined “Trumpence”? Well, no (says our inner child); getting what you want is really all that matters.

So, my theory goes: The American people elected Donald Trump as president because – at least at the time, and probably still – we were a nation of (inner) children. Traumatic, global, infrastructural, and systemic changes had pitched us off-balance, prompting us to imagine any number of apocalyptic scenarios where we would never again get what we needed.

With our security threatened, what choice did we have? More of the same? Complicated plans that would take years to realize and all of us working together? Unacceptable! There’s no time for that.

Like other emotional terrorists, candidate Trump poked our insecurities and promised that we could get back what we (never) had. Our body was old enough to vote, but the part of us that penciled in the bubbles and pulled the lever was much less mature.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2019 in Timely and Random

 

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The Four Ages of Life

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The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.

 

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The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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