fun with phrases, musings

Picking up the Pieces

Ceaselessly, the earth careens through space, forever at the mercy of the unforgiving sun.  Just as the earth is helpless to escape the very gravity of its own condition, we too are helpless to escape from life’s insatiable lust to exert pressures upon us.  We can either adapt to these pressures, or be obliterated in the wake produced by life’s rapacious march.  When we find ourselves struggling to recover from a recent devastation, an undesired outcome having forced its way into our lives, we’re said to be “Picking up the Pieces.”

Unlike many colloquialisms in our vernacular, this phrase describes the situation it’s designed for acutely and directly.  Hidden within it is found a rejuvenating elixir; it offers hope in situations of despair.  Obstacles that we abhor, that stir up the most vile emotions within us, also offer unique opportunities for change and growth that are inaccessible to sailors casting out to calmer seas.  Confronted with the task of ‘picking up the pieces’, if we so choose, we can leave behind those pieces no longer serving in our best interests.  In our bleakest moments, escape from a sepulchral situation might call for even more drastic action.  This is life imploring us to burn each particle of our very being to ash, and cast ourselves in a new form.

Opportunities for growth are always present, but we are rarely offered chances for unbounded transformation in times of peace. This is a product of our compulsive reliance on a so-called “Self-Concept.”  The human need for socialization has deemed it beneficial to craft, and cling to, a singular identity .  Determining our place in the world is a relational activity, and having a consistent self-concept in a world subject to constant fluctuations is essential for succeeding in this endeavor.

The Self-Concept, at most times, is extremely durable.  This is fortuitous for our species, as it supports the ability to make successive decisions all in accordance with a single end.  Our decisions and behavior constantly engage in a cycle of reinforcement with our self-concept that serves to continuously increase its resistance to external pressures.  We attempt to make decisions that are in alignment with our self-concept, and in turn, we rely heavily on our actions to help us define who we are.

Every aspect of our personality is interwoven, making it very troublesome to divide into all of its components.  Much like the blocks in a pyramid, it is difficult to manipulate a single aspect of our personality when it is held fast by so many others.  This necessitates an event that exerts a considerable amount of pressure upon our Self-Concept to allow the removal of an element that is no longer benefitting us.  In relation to our self-concept, this pressure is applied in the form of emotional strain; the exact strain resulting from a life event that leaves us “picking up the pieces.”

Let’s view our self-concept as a cup, not containing our morning coffee, but our very personality.   If this cup is shattered,  and we identify shards that are better left behind, we can’t simply glue the pieces we deem worthy back together and move on.  This will leave our personality perpetually spilling onto the floor, rendering us unable to maintain any sense of stability. We must demonstrate great care in rendering a new piece of the same dimensions to replace each one we leave behind.

Regaining equilibrium after leaving a harrowing relationship is a common situation that results in ‘picking up the pieces.’  Assume we find ourselves in this situation, and when we attempt to locate the dust pan, we find that it’s already out of the closest due to frequent usage.  Clearly what we’re doing isn’t working– after collecting the pieces, we must refrain from reassembling the cup in the same shape we have so many times before.  Sifting through the fragments in the dust pan, we discover that many of them are aspects of our self-concept that we cherish, and don’t require disposing of.  The task at hand becomes determining which shard is responsible for making the cup so susceptible to repetitive breakage.

Matching up so many jagged edges can take a lot of time.  If we work in a bar, and this is where we meet most of our partners, then perhaps we need to stop going on dates with people we meet in this environment.  We know that simply determining to stop responding to propositions at work is not enough; the piece must be also be replaced with another that forms an airtight seal.  Substitution of an activity that places us in more suitable locations to meet potential suitors, whether it be an exercise class, spending more time with single friends, or even joining a social dating site, is also an integral part of our restorative journey.

It’s also possible to implement a decision to give relationships a break altogether.  In this case, some of the other fragments of the cup may expand to fill the void.  Increasing the amount of time we spend on activities that we enjoy achieves this end, providing they are increased in equal measure with the amount of time previously invested in relationships.

Of course, we might replace a piece only to discover we incorrectly hypothesized the source of instability.  The magnifying glass is then retrieved from the drawer and the search continues– perhaps the true culprit is a particular quality we’re lured to in mates that functions as a negative presence in our lives.  Success relies on our willingness to continue experimenting with different pieces, and to always maintain a specific plan to replace whatever piece we hold accountable for our shattered state.  And remember, absolutely everything you throw in the trash ends up there for a reason.  Never reduce yourself to digging through the garbage.

Sometimes something so detestable happens, perhaps death or losing everything to addiction, that restorative efforts prove woefully inadequate. During these times, it becomes necessary to melt everything down to clay and build something completely new.  This requires colossal effort, demanding exponential stores of time and dedication.   The only realistic way to approach this elephantine task is to reengineer the cycle of reinforcement the self-concept is constantly engaging in.  Durability of the self-concept prohibits its direct augmentation- believing ourselves to be other than we are is an exercise in futility.  We must formulate a strategy to attack the other half of the cycle, an endeavor contingent upon our ability to alter our decision-making, and thus modify our behavior.

This means engaging in antagonistic behavior in relation to our perception of our own identity.  Prior to our most recent decimation, if we generally reacted in a singular way when faced with particular situations, we must now react in an antipodal fashion to the way our self-concept will undoubtedly seek to initiate.  Activities that we opted out of participating in, and behaviors that ‘people like us’ simply don’t engage in, serve as the precise stimuli we must embrace to reprogram the cycle of reinforcement.

By definition this will feel uncomfortable at first, and our very identify will be engulfed in feelings of conflict.  We will occupy places we perpetually feel like an outsider, and foster passion for behavior that we used to laugh at others for exhibiting.  With patience, repetitively making the decision to act in new and challenging ways will alter our very perception of our own self-concept, and make it easier to engage in activities harmonious with our understanding of who we want to become.

Temptations luring us to regress to a previous state will continually surface, whether we’ve amended a single aspect of our behavior or reemerged in virginal form.  If the reinforcement cycle responsible for the self-concept is not actively bent to our will, it will quickly resume working against us.  We must at all times be aware of what shape we’re seeking to embody, and also every previous shape that didn’t serve our interests, and be aware of whether our behavior is moving us in the appropriate direction.  If we remain vigilant, the grim labor of ‘picking up the pieces’  can be realized as the ephemeral opportunity for unbounded transformation that it really is, and we can grasp it before it dissipates back into the shadows cast by our pernicious behavior.

functional philosophy, musings

An Unfortunate Creature

Anyone seduced by the temptation to waste a night on wikipedia can testify to how easily this can happen. In this diverse landscape, pop-culture nonsense and dissertations on quantum mechanics co-exist, living only three clicks apart. Wading into the website’s infinite wisdom at this former end of the spectrum, I was quickly lured out of my cognitive depth towards the latter. While efforts to comprehend subjects such as quantum superposition quickly became futile, it was here that I discovered the thought experiment meant to help scientists comprehend this subject, referred to as “Schroedinger’s Cats”.
Thinking about this experiment, while failing to transform me into a physicist, did provide me with a valuable insight into the inner-workings of select processes involved in human socialization. To explain these insights, I’ve devised a strikingly similar, albeit highly simplified, thought experiment of my own. Instead of Schroedinger’s cats, I have somewhat cynically named this experiment ‘Unfortunate’s Creatures.’ (Because who thinks about locking a cat in a box anyway? C’mon.)
Let’s suppose that some creature, pick something fun if you wish, is placed in a soundproof, inescapable trunk, and the lid is then firmly closed. At some indeterminable point in the future, this creature is certainly going to die, yet we have no way of knowing precisely when this will happen. The creature’s existence is suddenly engulfed in a paradox, a concept most of us are familiar with. A living creature can only exist in one of two static states- living or dead. In the moments immediately proceeding the lid closing on this unfortunate creature, however, in a sense the creature exists in two states simultaneously. Lack of oxygen and sustenance has not yet become a considerable problem for the creature, yet we know its ultimate fate is sealed. Therefore, in our minds, at any given moment, the creature occupies the states of both living and dead concurrently.
The perceptions we hold about other people, which radically influence our behaviors toward them, and the perceptions that others hold regarding us, exist in the same state as ‘Unfortunate’s Creature.’ Our fundamental inability to experience the mental states of another human being directly make it impossible to know what is occurring in the trunk of their psyche. This results in a situation where we are constantly trying to infer other’s feelings towards us from their behavior, which is far too imprecise an experiment to yield any dependable results.
An unfathomable amount of pressures are exerting themselves upon even the most blessed among us at any given time. Poor behavior aimed in our direction is no guarantee that we were the stimulus to provoke this acrimony. As humans we rely heavily on preconceptions to inform our evaluations, but when it comes to social interaction, we tend to underestimate the subjectivity of our preconceptions. Considerable character flaws can often be overlooked in an individual who we believe to hold us in high esteem, and noble traits can likewise be discredited in someone who names us the subject of derision.
This phenomena is much the product of an ego that insists reciprocated action is the best way to safeguard our self-esteem from unrequited affection. Like many practices prompted by the ego, this one grossly overestimates our own importance in shaping other’s thought processes. We meet so many different people over the course of a lifetime, we quickly give up on evaluating them on a case by case basis, and instead begin lumping individuals into categories. In practice, another’s treatment of us is determined primarily by how prior life experiences have conditioned them to deal with ‘people like us.’ The ego can’t stand being degraded by such impersonal evaluations, but in reality it’s quite silly to treat someone poorly on the basis of symptoms suggesting such a tragically narrow view of the world.
Even if we possess the wisdom to realize the injustice inherent in generalization, our determinations are still bound to suffer from such fallacious thinking. Life is simply too overwhelming to allow the luxury of giving each person the respect they likely deserve. While another party is subject to the internal machinations of the ego that whirl about in any social situation, we are too, and each party is responding to the other’s outward behavior as influenced by these processes. Customarily the origin of strained relationships leads to the displacement of blame– “They didn’t like us first.” Objective thinking, however, allows us to ascertain the truth that this cycle may have been initiated by either party’s response to a lifetime of prior conditioning, or an infinite variety of other factors presently weighing on either party’s mind.
Escaping this cycle in contingent upon acknowledging this paradox, and choosing to believe ‘Unfortunate’s’ Creature’ is still alive in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, this thought experiment suggests that if we want someone to like us, and don’t be fooled- even the most anthropic among us desire affection and adoration- then we must operate on the assumption that they already do. If we deviate from this assumption, our pesky ego will insist that our behavior towards the other party deviate accordingly. This makes it impossible for us to discern whether their dislike of us is predicated upon some external factor, or simply being perpetuated by our own reaction to a perceived distaste for our character.
Granting respect to an individual who sees us in a negative light inevitably gives rise to uncomfortable feelings. Engrained within human nature is a morality lying somewhere between ‘The Golden Rule’ and ‘Hammurabi’s code’. Life’s trials generally draw our behavior towards the latter, which results in limited comprehension of the paradoxical nature of socialization. As a result, we are only capable of imagining ‘Unfortunate’s Creature’ to be alive or dead, when these states simultaneously manifest as soon as the lid is closed (a metaphor for first becoming a member of another person’s narrative, and vice versa.)
The decision must be made to eliminate cynicism from our social interactions, and either assume we are liked by all, or refuse to allow our treatment of others to be affected by perceived irreverence. If, in fact, our idealism proves ineffectual, at least we can take solace in the fact that if ‘Unfortunate’s Creature’ is dead, we weren’t the bastard that locked the trunk.

essays, fun with phrases

Fighting like cats and dogs


Recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the phrase, “fighting like cats and dogs.”  In practice, of course, members of these two species have been known to get on quite nicely.  Within our language this analogy functions to describe the tension that results from interactions between two people who possess highly divergent character traits.  The analogy operates on the presumption that traits inhabiting opposite ends of the spectrum are fundamentally incompatible.  We know this isn’t always the case with people; after all english provides a home to the phrase “Opposites attract.”  But what about the relationship between dissenting personality traits that exists within ourselves?

At any given moment, a human being is susceptible to a measureless barrage of thoughts, feelings, and urges.  If left unchecked, the inconsistencies between these various aspects of consciousness can result in chaos.  This potential for conflict arising from the presence of heterogenous traits does not vitiate my belief that a possession of certain disparate traits is actually an integral component of success.

Let’s talk more about dogs.  Shamelessness and sincerity are the most meritorious traits possessed by these most lovable of creatures.   A human allows anxieties and a need for social acceptance to mute the genuine expression of its desires, but a dog is free from these constraints.  Freedom to express itself fully affords a dog the opportunity to engage in every situation with utmost sincerity.  This approach to life guarantees that a dog will receive more enjoyment from the most unremarkable occurrence than many of us will experience at any point in our lives.

We share some of our traits with these unencumbered creatures, if only in small measure.  These traits, what I call our puppy-nature, provide us with three components essential to success.  The first two are motivation and direction.  We possess the ability to engage in activities without enthusiasm, and are often forced to do so on a routine basis.  Investing fully in any endeavor, however, whether it be a relationship, a job, or achieving our dreams, requires that we be excited about the prospect.  Maintaining this interest in our efforts over a durable period of time is the only way to succeed in any substantial endeavor.  Our puppy-nature informs us about which goals deserve investments of time and resources, and nourishes our passion so that we may continue to pursue them with sincerity.

The second component of success puppy-nature provides is the ability to experience fulfillment.  We often get so caught up in the process of achievement that we never take the  time to actually stop and reap the benefits of these achievements.  The most essential aspect of success is taking a break to enjoy it before moving on to the next objective.  A dog will enjoy chasing the same ball its entire life if it remains intact. The human tendency, however, is to find some more important ball to chase, even if we’re already happy with the one we have. Puppy-nature teaches us to halt the constant pursuit of the next object that might provide a greater sense of fulfillment, and enjoy what we’ve already accomplished.

If puppy-nature was the only aspect of our greater human nature, we would experience some serious problems .  It’s impractical for a species facing the complex social demands of human beings to live every moment with unbridled emotion.  We are not afforded the luxury of directing our affections towards, or seeking out affection from anyone we please.  Our consciousness provides us the unique ability to infer other’s states of mind, which carries along with it the obligation to respect other’s wishes.  Humans have to set more long term goals for themselves than dogs, and sometimes this means sacrificing the pursuit of our immediate wants in the interest of more durable goals.

Cat-characteristics, the traits we share in common with our feline friends, effectively compensate for the shortcomings of our impulsive, idealistic puppy-nature.  A cat has command over its emotions at all times; it is always in complete control.  This is why a cat can fall from such a great height and remain unharmed.  While the human tendency is to flail when we feel like we’re falling, the cat remains calm.  It does not allow the anxiety provoked by the prospect of injury to prevent it from focusing whole-heartedly on the landing.  The cat can circumvent its emotions to concentrate on whatever course of action is truly in its best interests.  Whether it is stalking a creature as agile as a bird or as slow as a caterpillar, it dedicates its entire being to the hunt.  The human mind can’t help but to constantly draw distinctions, to label certain activities important and others simply necessary, and as a result we live great chunks of our lives wishing to be somewhere else.

While our puppy-nature is responsible for motivation and providing direction, and for reaping the rewards of our success, we are wholly reliant on our cat-characteristics for the daily tasks aimed at achieving our goals.  We cannot rely on our emotional mind to lay out the steps we need to follow to get us where we’re going.  Many steps along any route worth traveling will be intimidating, difficult, or at the very least, tedious.  Engaging in practical goal setting, and seeing these goals through to completion, requires a pervading sense of calm and complete presence of mind.  We must pursue the unpleasant tasks, the caterpillar, with the same willingness that we pursue the agile bird, the tasks in which we enjoy engaging.

Controlling our emotions is considered by many to be the key to happiness and success.  Reflecting on our examination of the expression that is the inspiration for this discourse, we can see this ignores an essential component of the human experience, and teaches us only to value our cat-characteristics, and not to embrace our puppy-nature.  Sometimes, it is essential to let our emotions run free, to give them free reign to guide us to the destination our soul is truly seeking.  This process demands the surrender of a certain amount of control, of letting go enough to experience our emotions shamelessly and sincerely, and thus rid ourselves of the fear of moving in the wrong direction.

The real battle lies in being a good pet owner, in taking care of both our puppy-nature and our cat-characteristics.  Instead of keeping our pets separate, for the fear that they might live up to the analogy and “fight like cats and dogs,” we must teach them to co-exist, to rely on each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.  There is a place and time for each.  You can’t expect your cat to be an enthusiastic exercise companion, and you certainly can’t expect your dog to reliably use the litter box.  But if we learn to embrace each of these disparate elements of our personality, and utilize each one in it’s appropriate time and place, I believe we can truly learn to appreciate life more fully, and actualize our dreams more effectively.