Archive for the 'conformity' Category

Stories we tell

December 25, 2013

I was talking to Gita about how sometimes recently I become so aware that something that occurs is just what happens when some energy happens to manifest in a certain way, like what happens when the wind meets a flag or a sail and we see the flag wave or the sail billow.  It’s just stuff that happens, the tail wagging on the dog that we happen to be able to perceive far more easily than we are able to perceive the rest of the dog.

Because so often we instead accord these tail-waggings (greater) significance.  We put them into narratives.  Illness occurred in this person because they ate the wrong foods (did the wrong thing), that person met their soul mate because they networked appropriately (did the right thing), this person found a treasure in their attic because they were industrious (were deserving), that person lost their business because they were not industrious (were not deserving).

This isn’t the “you didn’t build that” issue, it’s the “things happens as the result of long and complicated processes most of which we are not aware of.”

Some of us accord even more significance to things.  We see patterns, we see synchronicity, we see metaphor.  I got clobbered in a class once when I tried, with my best technique I had learned elsewhere, to analyze what the monsters in Cavafy’s poem about Odysseus might represent.  Different styles of literary interpretation or criticism use different techniques or assumptions — I think we accept that.  When we apply different techniques to the interpretation of life events, we sometimes get clobbered, too.  Exhibit A is the  label “conspiracy theorists.”  Some secular rationalists clobber people with religious faith, and vice versa.

But what I’ve observed is this.  Our accepted way of combining events into stories is just that, an accepted way of combining events in stories.  To see this, a person has to view what goes on in this world from “outside” of it.  If people do this in some ways, they fall into distress and dysfunction and we have mental illness.  If people do this in other ways, we have witnessing and detachment — which some people also consider pathological.  But once you go there, you can observe that consensus reality is just a group choice, it isn’t necessary or compelled by anything.  You just have to make sure you can toggle back and forth between consensus reality and witnessing it from without, if you want to be able to continue to navigate in society.

Once a person “bursts the bubble” of consensus reality, then they can see that “stuff happens” not in a fatalistic way, but in an observational way; it is that which happens.  It is that which happens that we are adapted to seeing.  Our attempts to make stories out of what happens that we see is more the aberration, more the foreign intrusion, than the occurrence of something that looks like an outlier, that doesn’t quite fit with our storytelling assumptions.

Maybe a person can get to the point of having a perch from which to perceive the world from the outside without first seeing the world through more intensive patterning.  But it is certainly one way to do it.  And once a person does it, then they can see that not just the intensive patterns are an artifact of perception, but that the more widely accepted patterns of most people are, too.  And then a person can process what happens, as simply what happens.  Gita called that “beginner’s mind.”

I sometimes say that I go to Gita when I need to hear what I don’t want to hear.  This time I could see the category is really “what I need an outsider to observe and relay back to me.”

Sometimes Gita  clarifies for me the name for a concept in a different way.  For example, I was using “unisex” where “androgynous” was the more accurate label for what I was referencing, and she corrected me.  We humans do pick one another’s nits, they just aren’t always material nits.

What I personally got out of what Gita observed back to me is not actually the point of this post, but I will end with it anyway.  For me, what she did was to tell me, in effect, that I had arrived on the outskirts of where I was headed, namely my beginnings but with an “I” aware or conscious in a way that I hadn’t had before.


Performing tasks

January 16, 2013

I think I learned this from Gita, she to whom I go to hear what I don’t wish to hear.  It’s the idea that whatever it is we’re doing, we are doing it for God (or, if you prefer, we can do with the attitude that we are doing it for God).  I associate that idea with tasks that are tedious, difficult, too many in number for the amount of time, etc., but I mostly associate it with tasks deemed lowly in some way.

But today I was caught up in activities that involved technology, finances, and other things that suggest status and significance.  What I actually spent hours doing on the phone and online with these people in the financial sector was really unproductive and unsatisfying, and why it has any better reputation than cleaning bathrooms or shoveling snow, I don’t know — I certainly didn’t find it more satisfying than tasks lower on the totem pole according to our system of values, and it struck me that the people on the other end of my communications, while very nice and trying to be helpful, were being paid more than I think maids and plowers are paid.

It struck me that what we assign value to is pretty arbitrary, and that some of the current claims to an activity’s value are a little like the emperor’s new clothes.

But if the orientation is that whatever task is being done is being done for God, it doesn’t really matter.  That concept is a great leveler.

The opposite of orthodoxy

January 10, 2012

I do actually understand the pairing as opposites of “liberal” and “conservative,” but what I personally find more helpful is the contrast between people with airtight belief systems and those who are more open and porous.  It’s sort of related to the contrast between ideologues and non-conformists, between the orthodox and iconoclasts.

So, I’m not sure what is really gained when people jump ship from conservatism to liberalism, or vice versa.  The trouble I tend to have is with people’s being doctrinaire and imposing their beliefs on others — that sort of dynamic is quite possible regardless of whether one is for big government or little government, EPA regulations or industry independence.

I think I’ve noted before that someone once said to me that he thought the orthodox of different religions had more in common with each other than with the less observant members of their own religions.  I suspect that’s true of politics, too.  And when people change party affiliations, I’m not sure they change personalities or emotional make-ups, and I’m not sure they don’t use the same attitudes and techniques in their new context.

What I enjoy more is taking off all the labels and disaggregating all the ideas that are usually tied up together and looking for the ideas that work, that make sense of a sort, that hold up to rigorous analysis, that serve the greater good.  I probably have the dubious advantage (or bias in favor of this approach) of being somewhat ignorant of what one is supposed to think — of which ideas are supposed to go together.  Of course, being too much of a free-thinker can leave a person with fewer sure allies and without the kind of community that people who seek group affiliation and are comfortable with it enjoy.  Willy and I would notice this when we would periodically look into private schools for our kids — we fit in nowhere, both because of family composition and our beliefs (or lack of a recognizable package of them).  We would laugh about how we were a party of two.  And we didn’t get that way on purpose, it’s just where our thinking took us, and by chance we seemed to think alike — at least about anything major (not so about things like whether dishes that will eventually need scrubbing by hand should go first through the dishwasher — him, yes, me no — or whether it makes a difference whether you soak a pan in hot or cold water — he claimed cold worked just as well, but I was never convinced, his scientific explanations notwithstanding).

Anyway, I guess I maintain that free-thinking on my own, not so much out of conviction or habit but because that seems to be the way my mind works.

Full circle

December 13, 2011

When I was at the potluck supper last Friday night (mentioned in this previous post), where I’ve been going to services for the past few weeks, I ran into someone I know from another group.  And it struck me that I had ended up at the services indirectly because of somebody in that other group, somebody who has no connection to the services or to the person I ran into there, so in a way, it felt as if I had come full circle:  from the first group one person had invited me to join a second group, and someone at the second group had suggested these Friday night services, and then at the potluck at the services, somebody from the first group shows up.

So, I started thinking about how to look at that.  None of the groups has an overlapping mission with the others.  And it felt initially like a series of causes-and-effects, like a concatenation of invitations.  But then I thought, no, it’s on account of the fact that we’re all part of a (larger) community, maybe a sort of nebulous one, that shares some common characteristics about conformity (or not) and geography (greater Cambridge, MA).

Which by itself might not be particularly worthy of note, but what I liked about my series of thoughts was that it reminded me of how we sometimes see causation where there really is (only) correlation (including in medical, scientific, and social science research studies).  Each invitation did cause the next link in the chain, but really what seems to be going on is that we are one larger group that subdivides from time to time and coalesces into smaller groups, maybe like the way the pieces regroup inside a kaleidoscope when it’s turned.  From a bird’s eye view, the chain and its links are not primary, although that’s the way it may be experienced on the ground.


December 1, 2011

I was reading what the NYTimes is calling “Pinkerisms,” and my reaction is to listen to Neil Diamond’s song “Men Are So Easy” to remind myself to locate my compassion before I finalize my reaction.

I can’t say I know for certain that it really has anything to do with gender, but I do associate it with gender; maybe it’s an issue overrepresented among men.  There’s more to us than our “monkey minds,” a “language” more basic than verbal language.

This morning I discovered in the shower, in the sea sponge I’ve been using for quite some time, a tiny little shell buried inside.  I worked it out, it’s quite sweet.  I felt moved to put it with my little piece of meteorite, in one of its crevices.  A harmless but maybe eccentric thing to do.  But it allows me to tell the ending to a story that needed telling, and it represents for me an example of things I could never have understood had I insisted on trying to understand them through verbal language.

Shell creatures don’t have verbal language, nor do geese nor rabbits nor the earth itself.  We talk about horse whisperers, joke about squirrel whisperers, probably as pet owners acknowledge non-verbal communication with them.

Why is non-verbal communication important?  Well, maybe it was the normal currency for millennia, maybe it’s still a lingua franca in this world.  Why is it important for humans to be conscious participants in non-verbal communication?  For me, it is the way I happen to understand, and it allows me to help others with whom there is no other means of communication.  This could be a severely distressed adult, a disabled baby, someone who speaks another verbal language, someone who has no verbal language.  By translating their communication from a more basic mode of communication, I can do kind of what I think a talk therapist does — help bring the issue into the light of day, where it can be seen for what it is, re-framed and re-interpreted as necessary, stripped of it emotional tyranny by stripping it of emotional baggage.  The intellectual stratum that’s left is the pure “information” of the situation that produced the emotional response.  At higher levels of understanding, that’s all there is.  But to begin the process, one must start at the level of communication of emotion.

So, why not, “de gustibus non disputandum est,” or rather, de gustibus linguarum non disputandum est?  Because we need to use that more basic mode of communication more than we do if we are to improve our world.  We keep going off in a particular direction of control it, fix it, change the material world to suit our fears and desires, and we all agree to go down that path, congratulate one another for accomplishments along those lines, but ultimately it’s a dead end.

My saying so is not going to change much if anything.  Nor would my gussying up this blog or acceding to other people’s sense, so far, of what would help me.  It’s like the way people say work for peace, don’t wage a war to try to produce peace; if I were to go back to same-old, same-old, for sure nothing would change and I would feel I had wasted my opportunity to serve and what I have accomplished so far.  If all I can do is maintain what ground I have gained for another to use further, then that will have been my contribution.  If I can figure out a further way to develop the ground I have recovered, I’m open to it.


November 29, 2011

Someone in an email group I belong to included the following, which may be commonly known, but I had never heard it before: “‘A woman has to be in the mood; a man has to be in the room.'”  There has been much discussion, much in a jocular vein, about this ever since, among other members of the group.

But I actually found it helpful in a more pedantic way, because it said to me that maybe some men don’t trust themselves and that’s why they avoid certain kinds of relationships with women.  Which in turn got me thinking about “What Temptation Means to Me.”

For me, temptation is usually about signing on to someone else’s view not just of the world and how to be in it but of me and how I should be in it.  The (mis)step I take is something like, “Oh, they must know something I don’t” and I jump right into their idea of what I should be doing.  A good example was when my son was struggling in high school and I called all the right people for advice and they told me to convene a meeting and it turned out to bring things to a head in a way we were not prepared for (and not what was supposed to happen — many rules were broken, but as I learned, unless the student and family have the resources, including time, to go through a hearing process, there’s not much that can be done when the rules are not followed — more than one lawyer told me, “Yes, you’re right, there really is no accountability there, they are used to that, and that’s a large part of the problem.  Muddle on.”  We muddled until he graduated.).

So, one of my temptations is to take other people’s advice, and when it means adopting a worldview that actually doesn’t work in my context, if indeed it actually works for anybody — sometimes I think it just becomes more obvious in my life because the issues tend to get played out in heightened ways — I end up sitting on the ground inspecting my bruises and trying to accept that what may be appropriate for other people may actually not be what I should be doing, and that it’s part of my contribution to the situation that I asked for and took their advice.

Bruises are one thing.  I can get back up on the horse (elephant?) and keep going.  It’s when the advice tells me something akin to, “You shouldn’t be riding that horse,” or any horse, that I risk trouble.  My sense of what horse I should be riding I think has to come through me, I don’t think I can take most people’s word for it.  When I sense I’m on the wrong one, I do have some success asking someone like Gita, who does see other people’s stuff pretty neutrally, about why I feel confused.  It usually even then takes my actually seeing it for myself to accept it, although the suggestion about where to look is invaluable.

The temptation with which I am currently struggling involves the perennial favorite question, especially in middle age, “What should I be doing with my Life?”  I don’t feel like a failure, the way a relative recently reported to me she feels, but I do feel tired and that I still haven’t found a modus vivendi since Willy died that feels like it works for me.  I have opted for the “function and be responsible” part of the program, and hoped that eventually I would find the opportunity to regroup in a way that would feel more comfortable, especially since in the long term I need a way of living that is less exhausting.  I don’t know.  Maybe I am too loathe to abandon my responsibilities in favor of something else, or maybe the lesson is to find a way to meet those responsibilities without becoming so exhausted and with discovering a way to find contentment in my life as presently constituted.  I do somewhat better with answering the smaller question of, “What should I be doing right now in my life?  What is next?”

What we see

October 16, 2011

I was at the Porter Square T stop in Cambridge, MA earlier today, and it was windy enough for the mobile sculpture above the station to catch my attention as I waited for the light to change.  I suspect that the structures are supposed to represent hot air balloons, but they’ve always looked to me like ice cream cones.

There was a song I used to hear on a children’s show years ago that had a verse, “‘Look there, Daddy.’  ‘What do you see?’ ‘I see a horse in striped pajamas.’  ‘No, that’s not what it is at all; people call that a zebra.’ ‘I see.  But it still looks like a horse in striped pajamas to me.'”

I can see the balloons, I can see the zebra, I can agree that the other interpretation is outside of the consensus.  But I’m not sure I’m willing to give up that other, alternative interpretation, either.

I think there is a distinction between one’s own idiosyncratic interpretation (in which I might put my ice cream cone interpretation) and participating in other ways of seeing that we don’t include in consensus reality.  A mild example in this second category might be interpreting a situation in which a self-help group insists on keeping a lot of old books in the bag members take turns carrying to the meetings, just in case they are needed, as representing that members carry around “old baggage” that probably should be jettisoned, too.

Spending time in non-consensus reality has its risks, both personal and social.  But I’m not so sure that our current version of consensus reality is so “accurate” itself that paying undue deference to it at all costs is the answer, either.  I sometimes wonder whether that wasn’t what Socrates was getting at.  I like to think that if instead of trying to get others to agree to see things in other ways, we just help other people develop themselves, eventually something will willingly shift, and we’ll get where we need to go with less risk in the process to the messengers.

Acceding to expectations

September 19, 2011

I have an appointment this morning in connection with my volunteer work, and last week I went on foot.  It took me about twenty minutes, I think, to walk there last week, and I can walk along the bike path.

But I ended up having to make a lot of cell phone calls when I got there (and was locked out), and eventually my battery lost its charge.  If I had driven, I could have recharged it in the car.

So now I feel somewhat constrained by the expectation that I be able to use my cell phone at such length, to drive there rather than to walk.  I can take a walk some other time during the day, I know, but I see this as a case in point about where things have unintended negative consequences.  Because I am really not sure what great good was accomplished by all the phone calls last week — we basically reached the same result we would have reached without all the talking — I think all we managed to do was dot some i’s and cross some t’s and confirm what we already suspected.  But the availability of the technology has led to the expectation that we do this, and that, in turn, means that I feel constrained to use the supporting technology (the car), at the expense of doing what makes more sense to me by other measures: reducing driving, increasing exercise, etc.

I think I also see it as a cost of conformity, and that’s the part that I probably have the most trouble with, especially in terms of understanding where to strike the balance.