Archive for the 'self' Category

Damage and intention

July 26, 2014

Maybe it’s a result having gone to law school, but I can easily distinguish the issue of a person’s intent from the issue of the impact of their behavior on others.  In tort law, as I recall it, we talked about the different standards that might be used when deciding whether to hold a person legally responsible — there were standards such as strict liability and negligence, not to mention a standard with regard to when someone intentionally causes damage.  There was also the issue I heard called “weak intentionality,” when we talk about how some consequences, say, of flailing your arm in a crowded subway car, are reasonably foreseeable and we deem them foreseen.

So I get kind of frustrated with people who say, “I could not have caused damage because I harbored no ill-intent.”  I am not talking about whether I can forgive a specific instance, I am talking about trying to improve a chronic pattern of behavior within a relationship so that I do not feel that I am hurting myself by participating in the relationship.

What interests me is my sense that the other person cannot tolerate the idea that their behavior has an impact beyond or different from the one they intend.  That’s what seems to me to be behind what can come across as callousness — the denial allows them to keep their sense of self as never causing damage and hence never having to _______  —  I don’t actually know what it is they don’t want to do, but I sense that they predicate something on their sense of a self who doesn’t cause damage — maybe what they don’t want is having to do something they don’t want to do or that helps the other person but not themselves directly.

I’ve wondered if something like this pattern is going on when a person is confronted by a situation in which they really are helpless to help another.  Then, I am thinking, maybe, to tolerate that pain, they extend the idea of helplessness in that particular context, under an umbrella of “my behavior doesn’t negatively impact others so long as I am well-intentioned,” to many other situations in which they actually could do something more helpful.

But, if you forget to pick up the baby formula on the way home, the baby goes hungry, regardless of whether the intent was good, bad, or indifferent, or medically explicable (in which case you should not have signed up for the task).  That’s my point.

Don’t know, I am not a psychologist, but I do get the sense of trying to teach people the difference between intention and damage.



Shame and humiliation, embarrassment, guilt, and hurt

June 22, 2014

This is a just a brief addendum to my previous post, before I head out to take on digging out invasive flowering plants from one of my gardens.

It’s about what I think is correlated with people falling prey to addiction, or not falling prey to addiction.

I am wondering whether people who are prone to addiction feel shame where other people might feel embarrassment or guilt, and feel humiliation where other people might feel hurt.  My sense is that a primary emotion is transformed into another sort of emotion because a tint of a negative view of the self is added.  So instead of, “I messed up, I am so embarrassed and want to put things right,” we get “I screwed up, I am so ashamed, I think I’ll just deny and/or hide.”  Or, “That experience was really painful and I feel hurt and I am not sure how to make myself feel better” turns into “I feel humiliated and it confirms my worst thoughts about myself.”

Because I suspect that a key difference in the two outlooks is how the person views themselves — lovable but flawed, or unworthy and in need of perfection.  The problem, as I see it, that people who view themselves too harshly actually “mess up” more than people who find a way to manage their flaws and deal with their secondary consequences more constructively.  Harshness I think digs a hole where a more gentle approach encourages improvement.

I am not advocating that people not take responsibility for their mistakes and misdeeds, but that we use a framework that actually leads to constructive action instead of to paralysis and corrosion.


March 9, 2014

I am writing about “selves” because I mentioned them in a news comment I wrote earlier this morning and then I read Richard Rohr’s take on them when I read his daily meditation later.

I’m a big fan of the business persona, the self we put on when we put on a business suit and head out into the public sphere to do business.  I think we lose something with casual dress in the workplace, even though I all too well understand the impetus for it.

When we get home, most of us take off our business persona as easily as we take off our business suit.  We horse around with the dog or get silly with family members, we cry over movies, we get excited over a new music release, we get intense over things we feel passionately about.  We have a more private self.

We may present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts:  the self I presented in my home town and the self I presented at summer camp were variations of a core self, and I developed new variations to present in college, law school, and graduate school, as well as a business persona.  But I always knew what I was dialing back on or emphasizing more, compared to my truly private self, when I edited for social context in order to interface comfortably with others in the particular community or context.  Kind of like adopting the customs of the place while remaining aware that they are just that.

I have watched some people do something else.  It may arise out of a desire to interact comfortably with individuals or within a community, but it differs from what I described in the previous paragraphs because it looks to an outsider as though the person has created an affectation out of whole cloth, as opposed to shaping something already within them, and then lost touch with their actual taste or opinion or way of doing something that is being replaced by this new construction.   Eventually they are unable to reconnect with their original taste or opinion or way of doing the thing.  It looks different from somebody outgrowing a taste or changing an opinion — it looks more like they just grabbed a ready-made one off the rack that doesn’t actually fit or relate organically to where they are in their development but they wear it nonetheless.  It rings “false” in the sense that it appears superficial and unconnected — like a tip of the iceberg without the rest of the iceberg.

People who do this repeatedly I see as having created a “false self.”  The various varieties of self we all develop are different from this false self.  The various varieties we are aware are various varieties and we can slip them off and we have not lost track of who we are in private.  The false self becomes something that cannot be taken off so easily.

The private self, I believe, is connected to the soul.  The false self is only indirectly so connected, if at all, as I see it — its connection to the soul would be through its connection to the private self.

To have empathy and compassion, to be able to cleanse ourselves of our emotional detritus, to connect with the universe, I think we need access to our souls.  I think we have access our souls through our private self.  So I think it’s important that we not lose track of our self, not lose our connection to it, not sacrifice our relationship with it, just in order to gain social benefits.


January 5, 2014

For me, keeping my bearings is about remembering who I am and not getting sucked into being someone else, including someone another person thinks I should be.  How do I get some idea about who I am?  Through opening myself up to the universe and being in touch with my insides, going all the way down as deep as I can go inside myself.  And easy beginning exercise can be, “What do I feel like wearing today?”  or, “What do I feel like eating?”  It’s about “What am I in the mood for?” not in a superficial hedonistic way (although the answer may be that I am in the mood to indulge myself hedonistically), but in terms of discerning my true mood.

Eventually the answer in the case of clothing becomes, “Whatever is easiest and simple,” and so, too, with food, but in between beginners’ steps and getting beyond ego needs comes a lot of ups and downs, a lot of frustrations and a lot of choices that lead to difficulties we didn’t want, but from which we learn, including learn about who we are.  We don’t leap frog to wanting to put away these issues in the sense that they are no longer the focus of our lives and we want to put our energy elsewhere, we get there step by step.

I think a key is being open to listening to what a situation has to teach us.

For example, suppose we meet a person we want to make a good impression on, and our idea of what will make a good impression is being articulate.  The other person may actually not give a hoot about whether we are articulate or not, so, for starters, our sense that articulateness is key is not about some objective truth.  But if we are left with a sense of disappointment in ourselves when we have not been articulate, what can we learn from that?  Articulateness may be our way of navigating the world and using our muscle to achieve our goals.  Perhaps not being able to engage in it is a way of letting a person know that such tools are not always what is called for.  Trying to befriend a stray dog in order to get it to safety will not involve articulateness, it will involve making clear a friendly invitation.  Comforting a distraught child is likewise not about being articulate.

Even meeting a fellow grown-up may not be about being articulate.  It may be about being open to the moment, unforeseen, and that moment may be about something else, even if that moment occurs in the context of a heated conversation.  It may just be about getting to know the other person — or deciding that one does not wish to get to know them.  It could be about choosing to take a risk and make a change in one’s usual modus operandi, and do something not so obviously helpful to one’s career, instead of doing the same old, same old and chatting up the more powerful and higher status people in the room in the pursuit of material benefit.

It makes a difference what one is ready for on the inside.  If one has devoted oneself to articulateness, there may be little developed in terms of risk-taking or comfort with the less conventional.  And in the moment when articulateness fails, one probably can only decline the opportunity to take the risk or pursue a less-trodden path because one is just not ready.

So the moment passes, for both people.  Although one may process it as having been unfortunately inarticulate, it probably wasn’t the case that one should have been more articulate, the moment was probably more about experiencing the limits of the skill of being articulate, that it will only get you so far and may not be available or apt in some situations, and what do you have then, what will take its place?  Indeed, one may actually have been extremely articulate in communicating, although not with spoken words, “No thank you, I really don’t want to take this opportunity, I am here for something else, and you make me very uncomfortable.”  If one remains caught up in the articulateness issue, one is then not taking yet another opportunity presented, the opportunity to integrate the inner self with the self one presents to the world — and to one’s self.  Maybe one is just not ready to do what that would take, either.

The other person may not process the passed moment as having been about articulateness, they may have processed it as having been about readiness.  They may be just kind of surprised, and disappointed, by the reality of the other person’s state of readiness revealed in the moment and its contrast with other indicators of what it would be.

I didn’t want to take the time to write this post this morning.  I have a lot on my plate, I have a lot of stuff with deadlines that I need to take care of, I generally feel better about that kind of stuff when I am actually working on it — knowing it’s there and needs to be done, being aware of it and not working on it, have a negative impact on me.  But I wrote this anyway (even did some light editing, which I most surely did not want to take the time to do), because I had the sense that that was what this moment called for.

When opposites are the same thing

October 9, 2013

I was thinking about how being overly criticized, unjustly and frequently criticized, or treated worse than one’s behavior warrants can lead to walling up the self, refusing even reasonable feedback, and coming across as overly self-confident, or it can lead to a loss of confidence and too great a willingness to acquiesce.  I am sure it can lead to other states of mind and behavior, too, but what struck me is that these two extremes are in a way the same thing, namely, damage to an accurate sense of self manifested in an inappropriate relationship to feedback.  Deriving a core sense of self from some healthier source is needed as something against which to measure criticism:  is the criticism reasonable?

There are plenty of social and business, private and public contexts in which the feedback we get about ourselves is unreasonable and needs to be acknowledged, even responded to, but ultimately seen as not really being about us.  Being treated by a customer service representative or a boss rudely or as if we are stupid, being ridiculed by a teacher in front of the class, being punished for something we didn’t do, receiving more negative feedback for a behavior than others receive, not receiving the reward after successfully completing something for which a reward is given —  we need to have a way of processing these experiences without ending up with a distorted self-image and without ending up dismissing all feedback as a result.

So, I think, the overly self-confident person and the insufficiently self-confident person are probably really the same in the sense of having a damaged barometer of self.


January 13, 2013

I don’t myself have a problem of feeling unworthy of spiritual help or transformation.  I read about unworthiness in Father Rohr’s Daily Meditations from time to time, like today’s, and it sounds to me like someone describing a place I’ve never been to on vacation.

I am quite familiar with feeling a lack of self-confidence developed from previous negative feedback from other human beings, which can morph for me into feeling deemed generally unworthy by others, but in terms of my relationship to things spiritual, it just has never in my lifetime entered into the equation.  The only feeling I can come up with to relate to a feeling of unworthiness is a knowledge that I’m no better (or worse) or special than anybody else, that we all have the same potential, and that we realize different parts or amounts of it in our different lives.

I thought it was worth bringing up because I am concerned that it is not a necessary or helpful feeling to have, and that it actually may be one of those flaws we need to remove in order to perceive without distortion.

I also want to ask, in all friendly amazement, “Where did you come up with that?!”

To me, its counter is something like, “Why not me?”, as in, “I’m nobody special but I’m nobody worse [along the axis that matters].”  Because we are talking about a particular axis — ourselves as conduits for God’s love, and for that we’re all equally well-suited.  The only thing any of us ever has which is relevant in terms of what we can bring to the party is (our) willingness.

The surface

January 4, 2013

I’ve witnessed many people’s discovery for the first time that it is actually a known phenomenon that living in a situation in which appearances don’t match reality is stressful.  Many react with a kind of, “I thought it was just me who had trouble dealing with it.”

There’s an aspect that is related, I think, to a disjunction between appearances and reality that concerns me a lot — the development, and then maintenance, of a false self.  The false self is not connected to the soul, God, the universe, forces greater than ourselves, etc., in the way the true self is.  So, if we get too caught up in a false self, we diminish, and as a practical matter, lose, our spiritual support.

I spend too much of my time and energy supporting people with my own spiritual energy who don’t learn how to access their own.  It’s a form of enabling, not something admirable.  I find myself doing it especially when societal norms deem me responsible in some way for the other person’s behavior or well-being — it’s a way for me to mitigate the problem somewhat, a way to take some of the edge off the behavior of the other person.

It’s exhausting.  (As I said, I’m not endorsing the practice.)

That dynamic gives me an incentive to try to get people and our culture to value the true self, and not reward the development of the false self, so that they’ll access their own spiritual support.  A challenge for me in working on this is that I need to, I think, be encouraging and nurturing to the people who prefer to develop a false self — if I get impatient and show my frustration, I think I make the problem worse.  But I also need to be firm and to redirect them in their attitudes, behavior, even patterns of thinking.

I am aware that I need to work on patience kind of generally — on being more patient and also on not feeling discouraged or angry with how effective I think my work is — to develop an attitude that helps me just keep on plugging along.  I’m pretty good at reading the writing on the wall that others who have gone before me have left behind.  So I catch myself when I want to throw up my hands in despair or in disdain or in denigration of my efforts.  I would much rather do a small piece of this work well than expect too much from my own efforts.  Just as I am aware of the people who have come before me and of the people alongside of me, I am also aware that there are people who will come after me.  Sometimes trying to push something too far undermines the entire effort — like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  I’d rather a second camel be hired.

“The Point”

October 13, 2012

Having written most of this, I’ve come back to the beginning to mark this with a warning that what follows is my equivalent of what is currently being called “wonky” — it gets deep into the details of a particular discipline or point of view.


I’m listening to Harry Nilsson singing “This is the town and these are the people, This is the town where the people all stay, This is the town where the people all have one, That’s the way they wanted it and That’s the way it’s going to stay …”

I don’t remember how the story goes, and that’s my point — having (or not) a point is the issue, not the action storyline — it’s the theme and not the plot that is important.

We get so caught up in the idea that the action part of our lives is the significant part of life.  I don’t think it is.  But that’s the way we — most of us — want it.

In my elementary school, we wrote a lot of book reports.  We learned about features in a book to look for — setting, theme, characterizations, plot, are what I’m recalling.

My fifth grade teacher, Mr. G. (that’s what we actually called him — his name was Mr. Gianatiempo, and he was a really good teacher, one of the most effective I’ve ever had — so it was interesting when his personal life — he abandoned his first family and married a former student — became an issue — proving once again that flawed human beings can help others make their own progress), required that we spend most of the book report on character analysis.  There was a strict limitation on how long our summary of the plot could be (one paragraph, half a page) and we were forbidden to use the word “interesting” in our appraisal of the book.

I think life is about learning how to “drive our cars,” how, as a mahout, to merge with the elephant, to fly like a butterfly once our consciousness merges with our subconscious while something else in us observes.  When we learn how to interface this way with the universe while we’re physical human beings, we have learned how to operate our vehicle, to fully become who we are.

While we’re learning to reach our full potential as human beings, we have adventures and we experience them as part of a storyline.  We often get caught up in the storyline, thinking particular outcomes and details are important and necessary.  I think the plot is primarily in service to the goal of learning who we are and how we relate to the universe.   Even our relationships with other human beings are in service to this, in my opinion — they may be healthier ways to experience pleasure, but experiencing that kind of pleasure is still experiencing that kind of pleasure, and not, in my view, the be-all and end-all of life.  I think being able to merge with the world through living enough in the part of us that exists also in everything else, and hence allows for exchange between us and all else, is what we’re working towards.

Maybe, to go back to my book report analogy, we could see a parallel in a book’s theme.  Discerning the theme of a book I think comes harder to students.  I remember being taught it largely through examples: man vs. man, man vs. nature, for starters.  I think we as humans have trouble “identifying theme” in our lives, which in this case is not the same sort of cohesive dynamic in a book, but rather the patterns in our lives that we get caught up in in ways that prevent us from seeing clearly.  The underlying issues could be things like vanity, greed, being overly dependent on others’ opinions of us, and we notice this in how we keep repeating the same patterns of behavior or interactions with others over and over.

I think repetition indicates being stuck.  Unfortunately, I think being stuck in something perceived as pleasurable keeps us stuck sometimes.

A lot of what happens in our lives I think is there to help us see ourselves more clearly.  One of the ways this happens is through “mirroring.”  It is done unto us what we have done unto others.  Eventually.  We can accumulate a lot of debits on our accounts, so to speak, through our interactions with others, without having experienced the inverse, and when that happens, some people become even more resistant to experiencing the other roles.  Some people even shatter the mirror.

I think eventually the gears of human society seize up when too many people individually get stuck.  Quite frankly, addiction seems to be one of the pitfalls that keeps people stuck.  I think it can be a means to an end of self-discovery, and hence useful, but I think many people get stuck in the “means.”  Another pitfall is experiencing more than the conscious self can process at its level of connection with the rest of the self, and when that happens, people shatter.

I speculate that an alien life form visiting us might say something like, “Who designed this game?  What were they thinking?  They didn’t debug the software very well and the players are getting stuck and distorting the dynamic and destroying the hardware in the process.”  And then I think those aliens would try to set an example of how the game is played in a way so that it works, and in the process of doing this, they would be also be making it easier for others to do so, by correcting some of the distortion.  I don’t think these “aliens” would be like ETs in a science fiction story, I think they would be more like what we call angels and demigods and such in religious texts.


And now I’m listening to Nilsson’s “Without You.”

And now

Intimate things

September 20, 2012

I’m thinking about religious beliefs and wedding rings.

Some people have wondered why some Muslims feel so provoked by things like the video and cartoons recently in the news.  It has struck me as having to do with intimacy, with how close to one’s heart and personal identity a relationship or thing is held.

For some, their sense of self is bound up with their beliefs about God and their relationship to God.

I’m thinking that a way to understand this in the west is with wedding rings.  There are places into which one may not wear jewelry, places like surgical operating rooms and rooms for contact visits with people in prison.  But in both cases there is (often?) an exception for wedding bands.  For surgery the ring is taped, I believe, to guard against the importation of infection.  For prison visits, religious necklaces can be an exception, too.

For someone never married or religious, these exceptions can seem strange and a little arbitrary, but I think they reflect a cultural understanding of how closely we hold our marriages to our sense of self — the relationship becomes part of who we are.

I suspect that’s the degree of intimacy with some religions, especially those whose adherents are actively involved with them throughout any given day.  I suspect that that’s why it’s harder for such people not to take personally perceived insults to their religion.


September 5, 2012

I like many bittersweet songs, but a tension between outer and inner lives not so much.  What I mean is this: it may be interesting, convenient, or exciting to live one life on the outside and another one on the inside.  We have a pantheon of superhero characters who do just that in a way, transforming into their inner selves when duty calls.

But it’s a real drag to interrelate to someone else’s unintegrated emotional self.  In fact, other people’s emotional ambivalence I find damaging to me.  I don’t know which truth to go with, and, as someone who I think is more integrated, I don’t have a corresponding split of selves to use to relate back to this bifurcation of self in the other person.

Why I end up with such people in my life isn’t clear to me.  Its repetition implies to me that I haven’t learned some lesson, figured out how to respond in a way that serves — the pattern wouldn’t keep repeating if I had.

What I do in such a situation is to start by describing what seems to be going on and what seems to be my reaction to it, what feelings it engenders.  Frustration, disappointment, annoyance, hurt.  That recognition helps me move onto a different sort of awareness:  the person may actually be unable to integrate their inner and outer selves the way I at least think I do and apparently want them to (and am probably waiting for them to).  Doesn’t really matter why they don’t, the issue is, what do I do with the fact that they aren’t?  If I accept that that is a thing I cannot change, what is my response?  Probably some amount of distance or detachment, whether self-consciously developed or a natural by-product of the observation that this other person is presenting in this way — I move from participant to observer when I encounter this disconnect in the relationship.  That makes intimacy more difficult.

Maybe that’s the lesson: if I see things as they are, I respond in a way that is more helpful to my greater good, regardless of what my ego could engage in on its own if it didn’t bow to being integrated within my greater self as a whole.