Tag Archives: Psychology

Sacrificing Reality to “The Best”

Jephthah sacrifices his daughter

My son and I just finished a three-week journey in Europe.  I will share a taste of some of our experiences after organizing photos, but for now, I’d like to share a few insight posts about trips in general.

Yesterday we had a big family reunion where I heard my son constantly asked questions like:  “What was your best experience on the trip?”, “What was your favorite country?”, “What was your favorite food?”.

I had prepped my son for such questions when we had similar questions on first returning from our trip.  At that time I had taken him aside and explained something like this:

“Look, everyone is going to want you to reduce all your experiences in Europe to a few “bests”.  When answering these sorts of questions, you will at first find it difficult to distill out “the bests”, but with repeated effort you soon will find a few bests that satisfy all your listeners so that you can summarize your experience without boring listeners. By asking “Best” questions, people are only trying to superficially let you share your trip.  It is their way of sharing — without really sharing.

But, though it is customary and seemingly benign, it is a horrible thing to do.  You don’t have to let others teach you how to kill reality.  Fitting your experiences into “Best” categories may be convenient for listeners who don’t really want to share but it is horrible because you will also:”

  • Form the bad habit of falsely judging one experience vs. another
  • Quickly kill memories of other events and stop deep learnings in your mind
  • Distort memories with exaggeration and atrophy
  • Learn to boil down and distil reality to “bests” while destroying all the rest — a horrible crime.

As we went through examples, I was very pleased to see that my son understood.  And today, at the reunion, I heard him answering similar question from adults who tempted him to reduce and distort his experiences.  He shared a few stories but added creative caveats explaining that all his experiences were rich.  He refused to sacrifice his reality and left the adults a little off guard.

Question to readers:  This “Tell me your best”, “Tell me your favorite” questioning has seemed a perversion to me for decades. Is it just me, or has anyone else felt the destructive reductionism of this sort of thinking?

Notes & related posts:

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Ephemeral Morphs: our posts and our lives

How do you write?  I am always pleasantly surprised that my posts morph unpredictably.  I start writing with some hint of purpose but the post quickly seems to take on its own life — leaping forward as my earlier words wisp away.  I will often jot down several paragraphs of ideas, impressions and conclusions, and then rewrite them several times.  I won’t open them again until a day or more later:  cut, paste, rewrite that material until it is indistinguishable from the original.  I may repeat that process several times over several days. It is never the same post or the same me writing it — I love it.

The continual changing makes it see odd to stop and hit the “publish” button — for if I thought my last version was better than the first, then perhaps I should just keep coming back to it day after day.

But is it really “better”?  Sometimes I actually have past copies to compare to the new-and-better versions.  And when I compare them, I sometimes lament the loss of the unpolished, simple original.  Sometimes I wish I could at least snip out some of the flavor of my raw jottings and add them to the latest version.  But usually, it is too late to go back.  My older fun tones don’t mix with the new fun tones — damn, why can’t writing be all of us at once.

So it seems blogging very much reflects my mental life in general.  Though I am continually “me”, of course, this dumbing hallucination is belied by reading past writings.  And though I may be tempted to identify with my present thoughts, I am humbled to know they may not be mine tomorrow.  And though now feels better, I savor the past and always wish she’d come back to enliven my now.

OK, today’s post is a bit out of style — but hell, we should allow that, no?

Question to Visitors:  How does your writing evolve?  Have you sensed anything like I tried to sketch here of the parallel between your ephemeral-self and your writing?

HT to photo artist.

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Cursed by A Chinese Beggar

An Angry Beggar

An Angry Beggar

Decades ago, when I lived in Japan, I would take long summer holidays to other countries.  This story is from one of my trips to China and starts as I was walking out of my Beijing hotel:  No sooner had I stepped out of the hotel’s front door than one of the beggars camped outside ran up to me begging with a loud, obnoxious voice and gesturing to me demands for money. I ignored him and walked on.  In retaliation, he hurled at me, what seemed to be, curses. It was a surprisingly eerie experience. I had ignored beggars in many countries before, but this guy had something spooky about him.

One week after the cursing I came down with a bad chest cold. It was a stubborn cold that I dragged back to Japan with me. It took two months for the chest-ripping cough to go away but it was replaced by palpitations, anxiety, and weakness. Doctors could not diagnose a cause for my unrelenting suffering.  I tried every sort of doctor I could find: modern medical doctors, herbalists and acupuncturists. My symptoms dragged on and on but I would not let the illness stop my daily life:  I continued teaching at a university during the day and going to acupuncture school at night.   I lost a lot of weight and was usually depressed — I was no longer my ebullient, out-going, invulnerable self.  But finally, a little more than a year after the curse, the illness left me as mysteriously as it appeared — for no apparent reason.  That year had taught me a lot about suffering — memories I don’t enjoy pulling up even now.

During that very difficult year, that Chinese beggar haunted my illness. For while I searched for reasons as to why I was ill, and why doctor after doctor failed to help me, I had a nagging suspicion that I had been cursed by that Chinese beggar.  His image and our encounter haunted my mind.  As medicine did not work to take away my pain, I wondered if perhaps it was a curse that had damaged me.

Until my illness, curses were not something I had ever considered to be real.  I had not been a superstitious guy and I had not been raised in a culture that even talked about curses. But in my despair, I wondered if indeed I had been cursed.

Years later, after ‘the curse’ has lifted, I look back on my thinking as pure silliness. But back then, amidst my suffering, the possibility of a curse echoed in my mind for months and months.

Memories of this time in my life were recently aroused after I watched two mediocre films based on the theme of a curse: Season of the Witch (with Nicholas Cage) and Steven King’s Bag of Bones. I normally don’t watch horror films, but my son asked to watch Season of the Witch and Bag of Bones was a free NetFlix film that tempted me the next evening when I was too tired to read.   Oddly, these two films both were based on a curse.  This curse theme then reminded me of the angry Chinese beggar that had cursed my life into fragility.

Before my illness I had thought of myself as rather invulnerable (as I mentioned yesterday), but after my slow recovery, I developed a much greater sympathy for those with illness. I realized the obvious truth that all of us sit on the edge of terrible suffering — we are all vulnerable. The Chinese beggar will never know that he left me with a valuable gift which would help me in my relations with others and in my profession.

Questions for readers:

  • Have you ever had haunting thoughts that you now think are silly?
  • What are your experiences with curses.
This is part of  My (shameless) Autobiography  series
(click here for more)

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JoyBubbles and Imaginary Friends

WNYC RadioLab has done an amazing podcast concerning “JoyBubbles” (AKA: Joe Engressia Jr., 1949 – 2007 ):  A boy born blind, abused by Catholic nuns but who climbed out of the damage using an amazing skill to find success in life.  BUT, and here is the rub, in the end he rejects his success to return to a higher priority — his inner life and to again embrace childhood.

JoyBubble’s story starts at the 48 minute mark on this podcast.  The last few seconds of the podcast is JoyBubbles speaking the following:

“Yeah, there is help. If you’d like an imaginary friend, a bunch of them come that are just looking for someone to love and play with and talk to. And, so all you have to do is any quiet day, just get quiet and ask for one. Know that the kind you like will come and they will be with you as long as you want them and as long as you need them. For a lifetime and beyond.”

Wow!  How powerful imaginary friends.  How important our childhoods.  And how mysterious our inner life.    This is a peek into the religious mind, without the theology.  Studying the extremes helps us to understand the working parameters of what we consider normal.

See my other posts on invisible friends:

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Loner or Party Animal

Understanding the variety of human temperaments can help you understand yourself and others. Sociability is one such temperament trait. Where do you lay on the spectrum between Party Animal and Loner?  Take the poll.

It is known that the orbital prefrontal cortex (OPC) is associated with emotion and reward. University of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar showed that:

  1. People with a larger social networks had larger OPCs
  2. People with larger OPCs were more capable at envisioning another person’s thoughts (“empathy”, “theory of mind”)

So, some questions:

  • Does enlarging your social network grow your brain or is the brain size what determines your social reach? Maybe both. We don’t know yet.
  • Does blogging count as socializing?
  • Does the size of a person’s orbital pre-frontal cortex predispose them to certain types of worldviews?

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Atheism: Reason vs Emotion

Atheists often wave the banner of “reason” as if they are the only tribe who values reason. Yet many atheists are realizing that they don’t have a monopoly on reason. VJack at “Atheist Revolution” just posted “Irrational Atheist” confessing how theists and atheists alike share biases. My impression was that VJack use to be more of a “hyper-rationalist” (believing the unadulterated reason is possible and is the hallmark of atheists) but he appears to have softened up.  Hyper-rationalism is mistaken because the common sense notion of “reason” which we inherited from the Greeks is wrong.

Every thought, even the ones we may call “reason”, are accompanied by emotional states — in fact, emotional states often precede and stimulate thought. We have all seen, heard or read people as they attempt to use logic and reason while they are raging angry. And anger, like fear, hatred, jealously, apathy and other emotions gleefully activate our brain’s bias switches — biases that all of us share. These biases turn reason into rationalization.  Rationalization is probably the vast majority of what we are actually doing when we feel we are using reason.

Thus, when having a discussion, sometimes it is perhaps more useful to focus on our emotional states than on our logic.  Emotions are what add value or weight to our ideas and our logic — we need to understand this critical principle.  Thus, ironically, the emotion of equanimity may aid a reasonable dialogue much more than reason. Sometimes I wonder if cultivating emotions would be a more fruitful endeavor than cultivating reason. Again: the common sense notion of reason is mistaken — thinking is always accompanied by emotions.  Cultivating our emotions may be the quickest way to further reasonable dialogue

Preemptive Caveats:

  • Of course I think cultivating logic and bias filters are also critically important.
  • I am not idealizing any particular emotions. I realize that even supposedly negative emotions can be useful.

Related Posts:

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The Counsel of Many

The following quotes are from The Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (1700s):

And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. (p17)

People think that they can clear up profound matters if they consider them deeply, but they exercise perverse thoughts and come to no good because they do their reflecting with only self-interest at the center. (p18)

We learn about the sayings and deed of the men of old in order to entrust ourselves to their wisdom and prevent selfishness.  When we throw off our own bias, follow the sayings of the ancients, and confer with other people, matters should go well and without mishap. (p19)

These reminded me of the psychology studies showing the pervasiveness of self-deception and also reminded me of a Bible saying that I have often quoted: “In the counsel of many is much wisdom.”  But when I tried to look up the Bible passage, I could not find it.  Nonetheless, I found many Christian sites which, like me, felt it was a direct Biblical quote.  Though phrased differently, here are some verses from the book of  Proverbs which relay the same wisdom:

A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel.
–Proverbs 1:5

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But he who heeds counsel is wise.
— Proverbs 12:15

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
— Proverbs 15:22

List to counsel and receive instructions, that you may be wise in your latter days.
— Proverbs 19:20

Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers.
— Proverbs 24:6

Question to Readers:

  • Bible Misquote: Any Bible geeks reading this?  Does anyone know where that wording came from and how it got changed?  I’d be curious.  I must be from a famous movie, novel or sermon.    Hmmmmm?
  • Blogger Disease:  Do you think bloggers are more prone or less prone to staying outside the counsel of many?
  • Shared Wisdom:  What do you feel about quoting similar passages from widely different traditions?

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Bursting Beliefs

We often argue with people imagining that their whole belief system is simply like a big hot air balloon (left image). We visualize their entire faith crashing if we make one small puncture in their naive thin vacuous balloon. We can almost hear the hissing of the leak as their hot air rushing out as they crash toward the ground.

But people’s beliefs aren’t built like that. Instead, our beliefs cluster together and support each other. The picture on the right is probably a better model of how to think about our belief systems. One or even several balloons could pop and we would still be floating.

I have tried to visually capture that idea in other posts too.  The picture to the left is visualizing “God” in a modular fashion. That series of posts shows how even if one of the component-Gods shrinks, the others compensate to keep the “God” intact (albeit altered a bit).

The picture on the right is from my post which illustrates compartmentalized beliefs.  This model shows our beliefs as connected but isolatable parts of a submarine.  The submarine (our belief system) is designed so that if it has a small attack or accident, it can isolate the damage and survive.

Question to Readers: Do these images help? What images do you use?

HT:  Inspired by Devin at Veil of Deceit — thanks.

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Evil

Evil = An intentional act or actor which you dislike enough to feel it needs to be eliminated, eradicated, extinguished or made totally impotent.

Evil taking form in Harry Potter

Calling something “evil” is more than just saying “I don’t like that at all!”.  The word “evil” also has a demonizing effect — it calls for public action.  Just as I wrote that the word “God” is often used to sanctifying that which we deeply value, so evil is used to demonize that which we abhor.  Both “sanctifying” and “demonizing” put the subject beyond debate, capitalize on a myriad of other emotions, and graft on meaning:  “Sanctifying” adds good ones, while “demonizing” add bad ones.

Like “God”, some folks abstract and concretize this notion of “evil” placing it in devils and demons.

The Vatican Newspaper (July 13, 2011) gave thumbs up to the recent Harry Potter film where Evil and Good are made clearly different and where evil is never attractive and always has consequences.

Question:  If you think “evil” can be described objectively please tell me how?

triangle_end_tiny
My related Posts:

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Where do you sit in Church?

Today’s post was inspired by an overheard coffee shop conversation:  A young woman was telling her girlfriends about her long-standing argument with her husband as to where they should sit in church. She explained that as in her childhood her Dad sung in their choir and her family always sat in the front of church to show their commitment to the service. But her husband felt that sitting in the front of church is merely trying to brag about your love of God.

I don’t think these are their real reasons at all, but instead these are examples of “fart logic” (see definition here). And I am not attacking church or belief in a god — instead, my point in this post is actually broader and more important than that.

We all have reasons (or should I say “rationalizations”) for what we do but we are rarely aware of why we actually do things. To explore this issue, please record your sitting habit in the poll below and then, if you wish, please write a comment telling us the rationales you have used for your habit — be honest!  And if you have ever doubted your rationales tell us what you now think the “real” reason for your preferences may be. In a comments I discuss my ideas and the results of this pool.  Please submit your thoughts for your evaluation.  Thanks.

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