Archive for the 'social dynamics' Category


April 24, 2014

I very much appreciated Richard Rohr’s reminder this morning that “Without all the inner voices of resistance and control, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired.”  That’s in today’s Daily Meditation.

Gita and I have talked about this, too — couldn’t do it without “letting go” and “turning it over.”

Now, I am perfectly prepared to believe that I could do this better.  I put up resistance (like a kid pushing the spinach to the side of their plate), I fret, I get ahead of myself, I try to get other people to act in a way to prevent a future problem (like trying to get them to correct, before it is filed, a tax return that has mistakes in it).

I think I see two additional issues, in addition to “letting go” and “turning it over,” but, as I said, I am prepared to discover the issue lies with me.

One is volume.

I just end up with too many things on my plate as a result of being open to and able to do caretaking.  The inflow can feel as if it exceeds my processor’s capacity.

The second is society’s (unreasonable) demands.

The two kind of intertwine.

I once heard someone say that she thought of the nursing home in which her mother lived as being like “one big alcoholic.”  She meant that the institution could be as difficult to deal with as a human alcoholic, and with similar patterns of behavior.  I’ve felt similarly about other institutions, including schools, hospitals, social services, the justice system.  Whether it’s damaging behavior by the institution to a loved one or demands from the institution on me (as a caretaker), it can feel as if what I am called upon to do exceeds the amount of energy I can give it without too much damage to myself.

It’s no secret that patients in hospitals and nursing homes who have caretakers of their own weighing in as case managers do better, get better care, etc.

So where to draw the line between detachment and involvement?

It’s not just the wisdom of knowing the difference between what we can change and what we can’t, it’s also putting a boundary on how much of ourselves we can deploy without too much depletion.  Inflow from prayer and meditation certainly helps, but I think outflow can exceed inflow if care is not taken.  On the other hand, there is an instinct or desire to try to prevent or ameliorate suffering of others.  Part of that is wrapped up in trying to avoid pain — something we are encouraged to do by our norms and our survival instinct.  I think there is also a part of helping others in some situations that is from pressure from social norms more directly, regardless of where we think we should be drawing lines and regardless of inner guidance about where to observe boundaries, of what’s ours to do and what’s not.

My sense is that we have with our current social organization shifted around responsibility like a hot potato or like a shell in a game in which something is being hidden beneath one of a number of inverted cups.  Some techniques we seem to me to use to do this include, for example, narrowly defining our piece of the project and expecting others to do more;  littering, on the justification that one little piece won’t hurt;  setting systems up in such a way that requires a person without authority or control to have responsibility.

I don’t know if human free will can “clog up the plumbing” of the system of human interaction and society, or whether it’s the case that any system we devise can work, so long as those who have to use it interface adequately with divine help.  But I admit that sometimes I think we have developed a system that doesn’t work, especially for the long run.

For me, the questions are relevant to the issue of how much better a situation can be expected to go — because I am often hearing from others that things could be better if I just _______.  I have run through a fair number of _______, and I am here to say they do not necessarily work as advertized.  Maybe this is why 12-step programs refrain from advice and why the most general helpful source I found after Willy died was actually Al-Anon, the program for family and friends of alcoholics, although Willy was not a qualifier of mine.

At any rate, I conclude for now that working on my part of the equation, so long as I do it gently, can’t hurt, but that I should also be wary of assuming that optimizing my own part will result in things going better in other ways.

Joy of reconciliation

March 20, 2014

I get a real charge out of certain styles of conversation, when the exchange really flies and it feels exhilarating.  It’s the process as much as whatever content we’re discussing that I get a thrill out of.  (I suspect the experience arises out of a flow back and forth between myself and the person I’m talking to.  Of course, the downside is that while I pick up the ideas and good feelings, I also tend to pick up other things from the person, at least temporarily.)

Then there’s another process that can feel real good, too, the process of reconciliation through both people checking in with their guidance (the sort of guidance accessible through prayer and contemplation) and not just mixing it up as social beings.  If I listen for my guidance and they listen for theirs, and we each follow it, we end up, as it were, in the same place — through a process that involves less friction than even following the helpful rules of how to have difficult conversations.  And speaking strictly for myself, I can find the same idea much easier to accept coming from the Universe than coming from the other person — I think because most people coat their ideas with emotional overlays, and as my body does to the base in a vaccine, I react to the emotional coating (sometimes negatively).

There is, of course, something to be said for working out a disagreement face to face or email to email — it can be more satisfying if it works.  But depending on God as an intermediary is very helpful when the social part of the relationship is stuck, especially in what I see as asymmetrical relationships.  The other person just doesn’t want to interact socially with me as equals, and thankfully, there’s a way for me to deal with that without buying into that point of view or insisting that they accept social symmetry.  God provides a fluid interface and a way we can reconcile, if we have willingness.

Sometimes I wonder if the internet is a sort of medium and middle way through which the reconciliation through the spiritual part of us and the reconciliation through our social aspect can meet.  People can write their piece, others can react, and through links and comments and blogs and all kinds of less than personal communication online, things can be worked out.  While I am confident this method can serve a need, I do remain concerned that it leaves a lot of room for confusion and misunderstanding;  but maybe that’s a smaller difficulty than the difficulties that would ensue from pursuing a different method.  I don’t know, I just know my own difficulties with the method — and my own gratefulness for its allowing some sort of communication where, without it, there might not be any, or enough to move forward at all.  And I can always ask the Universe for guidance about how to think about and deal with the method and my reaction to it.


December 21, 2013

I was writing about confabulation in response to Charles Blow’s column about the Duck Dynasty controversy, and one of my replies came too late to be posted, and I closed my browser tab, so it’s lost and I can’t even post it here.

So I thought I’d write a few words on a related issue.

I do think we often have trouble distinguishing between (1) bad intent, (2) ignorance, and (3) distortions in processing and other aspects of communication.  And I think sometimes the explanation for a situation is not malice or even ignorance but that the person is saying something not to communicate any truth but for some other purpose in the course of trying to engage in social relations.

What I thought I’d mention is that I think that just as school administrators often misunderstand student behavior, liberals often misunderstand why people who disagree with them are saying what they are saying.  I think some of the things people who wind up being politically conservative say, they say not out of malice or even ignorance, but just because it seems like the thing to say to fit the situation in terms of social expectations.  As a friend of mine would say, they are “just talking.”

Now, “just talking” can create all kinds of damage, depending on content, but to get a person to stop doing it, browbeating them with reason or morals is not terribly effective.

I suspect the habit of confabulation arises out of a number of different scenarios, including avoidance of childhood abuse and a discovery it gets positive results of some sort.  I think that to dismantle the habit, whatever is the underlying cause must be addressed.

So when liberals rail at conservatives in a way that assumes bad faith or ignorance or difficulty thinking, sometimes I think they miss the mark.  The person is damaged, limited, and doing the best they can.  But I don’t think we ignore any damage they create, I think we have to show them the impact of their use of this mode of communication while we supply them with alternative and support them in overcoming the underlying causes for engaging in confabulation.

And failing that approach at resolution, we can just not take at face value what they say and avoid situations in which we might need to.

Of course, liberals have their own patterns of thought and talk, arising out of their damage and limitations, and enabling seems to figure prominently among people who end up being politically liberal.  That kind of posture and behavior causes damage in its own way, too.

Unfortunately, the combination of the conservative and liberal profiles seems to be one of those “deadly embraces.”  How we break our civic polity out of this merry-go-round probably involves everyone trying to address their own damage.  Come the millennium.

We may be social animals, spiritual creatures, and instinctive organisms, but we are also damaged goods, most of us, and we don’t tend to function at peak operational performance.

Focus on the primary goal

November 2, 2013

I get taken in by a group’s claims about what they are doing, just as, apparently, many other people do, at least in the contexts of charitable giving and health insurance.  In the latter two situations, we as an even larger group are willing to talk about a norm that requires a certain percent of the money taken in from donations or premiums to go to charitable works or health care, and not be diverted to the more private benefit of those administering the enterprises.  We can see that money diverted for salaries or travel is not going to building schools or paying providers.

I think we see that less well in other contexts.  I think group formation is so important to most of us that we don’t even realize when we are putting our need for exclusive social ties and positive emotional reinforcement above the purported goal of the group, its reason for existing.  I see that in the context of government, I see that in the context of the media.  “Insiders/outsiders” becomes the paramount driving force of behavior (which, of course, is a very dualistic way of seeing things).

Now, of course, some amount of social cohesion is necessary for a group if it is to persist and be able to continue in its work at all.  But that’s also true in the charity and insurance cases:  some amount of administrative expense is needed and appropriate.  It’s when that gets out of balance that we call foul, and I think we don’t even see the fouls in groups we are less suspicious about or in forms that are more difficult to see.

What I see often when a group is not meeting its goals is that they are pouring too much of their collective energy into strengthening their personal ties and benefits (could be benefits to their careers or social status or sense of self-worth and not to their bank accounts) and not enough into the goal of the organization, like governing on behalf of the common good or publishing on behalf of the audience.

Well, they can do that, it’s their choice, and maybe it serves a need that is more important in some way than the avowed, wider and more public goal of the group, in the great scheme of things.  Maybe their development as human beings is more important, maybe they need to go through this kind of behavior in order to learn something, maybe our world is more like a classroom.

We can damage the environment.  We can damage the economy.  We can cause a lot of damage for a lot of selfish reasons, including reasons driving us of which we are unaware.  We can have insufficient willingness to put our own benefit aside and see what serves.  I think people with more understanding than I, like Socrates and Jesus, got too caught up in trying to change people and keep them from this dynamic.  I think that narrowed their own options.  I think sometimes the better option is detachment.  If people want to soil their nests, and it’s the best they can do, maybe, in fact, that’s what serves the greatest good and all we can do is watch at this point.

There is a concept of attracting people to a new approach to life rather than recruiting them to it.  That orientation, among other things, assures that the people are ready and willing when they come to it.  Spending time on unwilling people is not helpful, and when we do, our own energy is diverted in just the same way as it is in the cases I mentioned earlier — it goes for someone’s personal pleasure, and that just doesn’t serve the greater good, their greater good, or mine, from what I can see.


June 14, 2013

I was reading Richard Rohr’s meditation on conversion and the re-acceptance of someone from the group who is deemed to have strayed.

I like what the meditation says, but in my opinion, if the world’s well-being depends on someone or some institution re-accepting the wayfarer in all cases, then we’re in big trouble.  I don’t think it’s going to happen.  I see instead some amount of tolerance or forbearance as the best the group can muster in some cases; if the returning wayfarer can make camp at the periphery and sustain themselves, fine, but there will be no substantial re-acceptance by the group.  That’s my observation, that’s what I name.  I would cite Socrates as an example.

Then I move on to contemplate how that may serve, regardless of how uncomfortable it is for the wayfarer.

Brain space

September 24, 2012

I was reading Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today, about “Mystical Love.”  There’s some contrast being made between prophets working in the world and mystics in their hermitages and what to do with some perceived tension between priestly concerns and prophetic concerns.

I think the issue is actually about brain space and energy usage.  I’m wondering whether it’s analogous to grieving; when a person is grieving, even if they don’t realize it, some part of their brain seems to be processing the grief and that “distraction” seems to be related to the uncharacteristic mistakes in the checkbook or misplacements of items in odd places around the house.  I am thinking that communing with God or the divine or the universe takes up brain space.  It would not surprise me if there’s less left over for things like navigating in the material world.  I suspect what I’m calling “brain space” also involves available energy for the various applications.

My guess would be that different people make different decisions, knowingly or not, about how much brain space and energy to devote to what.  It does also, I think, involve patterns of thinking and the energy it takes to speak in multiple languages and switch between the two, but if I just focus here on brain space and energy, I would say that people who participate in mystical love and who are also involved in social action have one sort of allocation going on while those participating in mystical love more exclusively just “stay up there [in the spirit realm]” and don’t allocate space and energy for many of the usual mundane tasks of human living and social interaction.

I came back in May from a trip to NJ more “up there” than usual, due to a complication in the drive home, and for me at least I experience a difference in how I relate to the material world depending on how much of me is oriented toward the spirit world — when I get enough of me “out of the way” in order to let more spirit through, less of me is available to interact with others and with the world.  Later, when the situation has passed, I have to almost consciously bring back out those parts of me I got out of the way, like taking out my winter clothes when the seasons change.  I’m thinking that those in hermitages keep more of themselves out of the way more of the time than those engaging in social action in this world — they keep their winter clothes in storage, as it were, and live in the world wearing very little, as least metaphorically-speaking.

Of course, there may be people who are able to do both (that is, engage in both worlds), either by toggling back and forth better than I can or because they have more brain space or energy to begin with.  Or maybe I don’t take into account in my own situation how much of my brain space and energy is used in care-taking of other people — without that function in my life, who knows how much brain space and energy I would have for other ( including worldly) pursuits.  I suspect such a change would also have other consequences, but I don’t know.

Supreme Court baseball

June 25, 2012

I was following the scotusblog live blogging this morning because I was invited last week to submit a question to a NYTimes Room for Debate feature about the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act when it comes down.  Apparently the live blog attracted close to 100,000 viewers, according to the bloggers there.

What I noticed were the forces that were encouraging me to get very caught up in the excited energy around this event and how that seemed to contribute to removing the decision itself from the realm of the everyday and the everybody.  My personal need to execute a task well made it easy for me to justify being a part of something I might otherwise have clicked away from with a sense that I did not want to contribute to the escalation of policy disagreements into political fighting spectacles.  The contents of the blog read to me like “inside [Supreme Court] baseball,” and while it was very well done and I could follow most of it, it really lifted the whole thing out of the realm of Main Street and into the realm of Law Reviews.

On the other hand, I wondered whether there is an upside to political controversies becoming arcane and legalistic: maybe it really does help filter out raw emotion and self-interest and lead to decisions more in the public interest, in contrast to something like a referendum on a ballot or a debate in a legislative forum.

In any event, it felt to me that the realm of the blog and the decision-making was far removed from my other tasks this morning of calling various health insurance bureaucracies about paperwork and eligibility requirements.

Social ills

February 10, 2012

In reading all the attention being paid to income inequality, unemployment, and moral decay, I start to wonder why no one talks about the role of anxiety and depression in the interplay of forces.  However depression and anxiety get started, they exacerbate a downward spiral, whether through self-medication or producing a child in the hopes the child will provide love that is missing in the parent’s life or through other maladaptive coping skills.  I suspect at this point that depression and anxiety are larger factors in struggling populations than we are giving these factors credit for, and while I strongly agree that medication can make a huge difference in some people once depression and anxiety become large and otherwise intractable, I don’t think medication is the solution, I think instead we need to treat why there is a net outflow of “energy” in the social group, because I think it is some seemingly innocuous small imbalance that begins it, that then gets amplified and begins a complicated chain of events or process, and whose symptoms we then observe in increased poverty, crime, and fractured families.  I remember reading a case study, while I was in college, about how rehousing poor people into housing projects in or near London unintentionally shredded family and other social networks,* and that this then had far-reaching negative subsequent consequences — the population did much work after the rehousing, much to the surprise of the people who thought they were just proving improved places to live.  That’s the kind of innocuous event I would look for in trying to redress the economic and social ills in the U.S. discussed in Charles Murray’s recent book and all the reactions to it.

*I thought I should add that, as I recall it, the (new) housing projects were high-rise apartment houses, rather than the lower-slung sorts of housing that the people were currently living in, and that the rehousing broke up the physical distribution of the family members, disrupting arrangements, for example, of having an aunt or grandmother around the corner who could pitch in to help with childcare or cooking or emergency help — the rehousing paid no attention to reassembling the physical proximity of the extended family members that was the scaffolding to the social safety net, it scrambled the population by rehousing them according to other criteria, I think.

And I certainly don’t think that the housing should not have been improved, only that the housing planners clearly, in retrospect, needed to take into account additional factors in order to realize the improvements without imposing new costs, however unintentionally.

The components of “empathy”

December 28, 2011

I have the impression that I am not au courant with what people mean when they use the word “empathy,” so I may be examining here something that should be given a different label, but it is, at the very least, the point of departure for my thinking.

I think about this subject as an adult in part because I have finally figured out that one of the reasons I often find myself in difficult relationships is that I was taught to regard people without empathy as no different from people with empathy — both sets were to be treated the same and as normal, even if in fact the dynamics of the relationships with each set bore no resemblance to each other.  So, I have had unrealistic expectations of long-standing about people.

On top of this, the people without empathy and who also had other issues behaved in ways that I found damaging to me, and this subset of people without empathy has loomed larger in my life than the subset of people without empathy who would be aghast to discover they had inadvertently caused damage or harm.  So, I have probably developed an aversion to dealing with people who have difficulty with empathy, and I know I have a developed coping mechanisms to deal with one subset of them that may actually not be appropriate for dealing with other subsets of them, only I’m too tired of incurring the damage that seems to come with interacting enough to find out to which group a person belongs, especially since for me the type who persist in damage even when given feedback have predominated in my life (this type I think is often labeled “narcissistic” or something similar).  I tend to cut and run when it looks to me as if the pattern is repeating with a new person.

But I am wondering whether for people who have trouble with empathy but really would like to behave more like people who have it, it is worth my while to try to figure out what happens when the relationship seems to founder over a lack of empathy, and how that might be helped.

The NYTimes articles on the couple with Asperger’s trying to negotiate a romantic relationship and one on Mitt Romney’s awkward conversational gambits have led me to try to tease apart a number of the strands that seem to be involved.

If Person A steps into the shoes of Person B, all that really has to mean, I suppose, is that they have picked up some information, not what emotional aura they may have cloaked it with.  It is quite possible that most of us empathizers immediately jump to a common emotional cloak for the same information: Person B is distraught, therefore I feel a certain way about them, out of which arises my desire to comfort them, which I can then can go about doing with one of the behaviors I am familiar with that accomplishes that goal.  If Person A (the “I” here) does this almost instantaneously, the whole thing may get labeled an empathetic response.

But the information that the distress exists is actually separate from the other pieces (and of course reading the distress in the first place is a whole other kettle of fish).  A person could have trouble with attaching emotional aura and thence consequent response to their perception of the other person’s distress (including helpful behavioral strategies for reaching a goal of resolution).  They could need a point by point road map for what for others is almost an intuitive linear route from perception to behavior.  I’ve known people who have required me to explain exactly how their body weight squishing my arm at an angle against the couch hurts before they can figure out to reconfigure what they’re doing (with the dogs, I think “Move” was the operative command, with more intuitive people, “Ouch” would suffice).

So, I guess I’m wondering with people who are said to “lack empathy,” which of these components are compromised.  And then there’s what to do about it.  Because it can be hard for me to step into their shoes to figure out their view of me — how do I figure out what their reaction to me should be and then explain that to them in little increments?  I’ve had people ask me to do that very thing, but those people have, at least in the past, all been people who would not use that information to behave any differently in the future or even then — for them, it turned out to be just a way to learn what behaviors to fake in the future, and so I eventually refused (not just to continue supplying information, but to continue interacting with them).  But if I had the impression that explaining more, even if it’s just from my point of view, would actually help the relationship proceed in a way helpful to both them and me, I would probably try it again and continue it for longer.  Although at this point in my life it would take a huge leap of faith in the face of many attempts at this that turned out to be futile — being able to parse the other person’s good will unequivocally would probably be a big help to me.


October 15, 2011

When I was in college, I think, my father got in a mood to talk about family history.  My mother was there, too, and when my father referred to theirs as a “mixed marriage,” I was surprised and thought I hadn’t heard right, or that I was about to hear a family secret maybe.  But instead I got treated to a short lesson in Jewish social subdivisions, and how the marriage between a German Jew and a Galitzianer is considered, from within the confines of Ashkenazi Judaism, a mixed marriage.  I suspect no non-Jew would be able to make much sense of this, and I also suspect there are plenty of parallels in other cultures (relationships between people from different Irish counties come to mind).

So, when some Christians say that Mormons aren’t Christians, I think, that’s an internal feud, internal to the grouping of relevance to me.  And why this sort of internal religious bickering has any place in our political arena I don’t know, unless we’re trying to mirror religious fracturing within the governments of other countries.