Think About The Way XXII

Think About The Way XXII

The twenty-second of a never-ending series

By Doctor Gonzo

22 November 2006

Minneapolis — Push. Push. Push.

That message greets me every morning, after I walk up the granite stairs of the S.O.B. and pull on the brass handle, covered in an ancient patina, of the front door. Push, the revolving door says, so I push and I go through and as I do so, I give it an extra shove as if I were on a game show and pushing for a chance to make it to the Showcase Showdown. The same thing every morning, because that's what my narrative tells me to do. It sets down some broad rules about supporting myself and being professional and not tearing through the halls screaming. It doesn't have all the answers, though, such as whether I am pushing against that door, and whether it is pushing back on me.

That age-old Zen question, of which is the subject and which is the object, is perhaps it is a bit trite. However, it remains a very valid question. Life has been pushing back on me of late, or perhaps I should say that it has been pushing back on me more; life always pushes back whether you realize it or not, a consequence of Newton's laws applied to existence rather than physical objects. Sometimes, it pushes back on you in odd ways, and sometimes it gives way easily and almost invites you in, pulling instead of pushing. When you are pushing against too many objects that give fierce resistance, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate exactly why you are pushing where you are pushing, and whether it would be a good idea to start pushing somewhere else. Especially when you have noticed in the past that pushing elsewhere not only wasn't dangerous, it was a lot easier.

With the lights out, it's less dangerous...

Everybody has a narrative. It's not your goals or ambitions, it's not a to-do list, it's not what you want to accomplish. It's how you frame your experiences, like the spectacles through which you view your life and categorize it. It's your "meta", the "thing about a thing", the container that holds everything else in it. We all have to create a narrative, because there is an almost infinite amount of sensory data out there, and our brains would quickly be overwhelmed unless we neatly filed things away in pre-labeled cubbyholes. What people say, what they do, the color of the lawn, the smell of perfume, the sounds of Pink Floyd...they are just part of the information we constantly receive. We grab onto maybe 1% of that information; the rest never gets past our filters. Some filters we have no control over, but some we create for ourselves in order to help make sense of new situations and new experiences.

Since these filters literally determine what you perceive and what you ignore, so it is impossible to underestimate how important they are in determining how you live your life. Everything you learn from an early age are transmuted into bricks that build up these edifices: learning to differentiate right from wrong, proper standards of conduct, how your parents and your family treat each other, how people act at the store, how people act in church, how you act towards your friends. Most of the time this isn't done consciously, since much of your narrative is created before you are aware of even the concept of its existence. You just accept what you are nudged towards, unconsciously creating a structure that will be used to interpret future experiences. Eventually, you might realize that you do have this set of preconceived notions that colors everything you see and do, but by then it is pretty hard to change it. A lot of the time, you don't even see that you have it at all and you will harshly criticize anybody for insinuating that there is more than one way to view things; these people are called "religious believers."

Narratives are powerful things. Wars are started because one group of people, sharing one narrative, decide that they hate another group of people sharing another narrative, because their narrative says so. A narrative determines whether you see a setback as a temporary dip in an otherwise upward trajectory or more evidence that your life is horrible and is only going to get worse. It plays a big part in determining your happiness and your success, simply because it goes a long way in defining what those entities are. Similarly, it heavily influences how well you are going to work with other people and their narratives. Only hermits have the luxury of not needing to worry about how others classify and interact with themselves. Those of us who live in civilization generally find it easier to deal with people who have narratives that aren't drastically different from our own. When there are huge differences, what you get is the answer to that old Knowledge Bowl question that starts like this: "A student from America lives in Japan for a year..." Culture shock!

Powerful things. Consciousness-shaping things. George Orwell posited that if you can change the meta, change people's narratives through the use of language, eventually it will be impossible to have thoughts that go against the ruling ideology. Like just about all meta, without it nothing else exists. Changing it a little can lead to drastic changes down the line. Which begs the question:

What happens when you discover that the narrative you have created is wrong?

It's fun to lose and to pretend...

Some people out there may already see a "gotcha" that prevents the question from being answered, and I see it too: whether a meta can be wrong depends a great deal on how you define "wrong". It's hard to define a narrative as being inherently wrong, but it is obvious to see that some narratives do a better job of describing reality and providing the right framework for dealing with reality. A narrative in which everybody is out to steal your Lucky Charms and the only way you can defend yourself is to shoot them preemptively is not a terribly good narrative to have around other people. Nor is a narrative where you will be "greeted as liberators" and have flowers tossed at your feet. Sometimes, the cubbyholes that we jam our experiences into don't fit right, or warp things, or break them entirely. Depending on where things fall, it may not make a huge impact in how you live you life; on the other hand, it may matter a great deal that you are smashing and mutilating things as you perceive them. Or the cubbyholes may not exist at all, so we drop valuable pieces of information on the floor and lose them forever.

I was pushing and pushing, and things wouldn't fit or I would lose them entirely. At first, I thought that perhaps the problem was with how I was acting within the confines of my narrative. If I tweaked a few things, followed the right lists, then everything would get back to where it was before. It was only after a fairly long period of incremental failure that I began to question my underlying assumptions, to understand that maybe the problem wasn't in the details, but with how I was seeing things. No matter what tool you use, no matter how delicately you hold it, no matter what angle you choose, you are not going to be able to pound a round peg into a square hole. Realizing that the problem begins with the assumption that a round peg belongs in a square hole is the beginning of the solution.

It's hard to know when I began questioning my narrative, because it's a bit like knowing when you first acknowledged the universe: it's everywhere around you. It's the water that the fish are oblivious to because it's their whole being. Sure, from time to time I would notice that some things that should have gone one way because my narrative said so went another way, but I didn't spend a whole lot of time paying attention to them because, of course, my narrative told me not to. It's not easy to bootstrap a way outside of things to see it from a different point of view. But eventually at some point along the line, something must have happened to open a crack to what lay beyond, and it began to spread.

I had to quickly admit to myself that it was certainly possible that my narrative left me ill-equipped for living happily and successfully, as that had happened before (although, of course, I didn't fully grasp it at the time). One example that is simple and easy to understand is how for a great deal of time, my narrative focused exclusively on academics. For me, life simply equated to school, and school for me was insanely easy. It didn't require much effort to do the "right thing" in class, and with every accolade I received I was building up a conforming narrative that was encouraged by my parents and teachers. Unfortunately, there were a couple of fatal flaws with this narrative, despite the best intentions of everybody concerned: clearly, academics was not the sum total of life unless I was planning on never leaving academia and embarking on the 50-year PhD program, which is something that does not work well with the post-industrial capitalist American society we are living in. Second, by narrowly defining the important thing to be academics and noticing that it was easy, I thought that everything else would be easy too, and any obstacles would easily succumb to the same rote, logical, scientific-method steamroller that worked well in school. A mathematical algorithm would provide the same right answer constantly whenever it was used, so a similar algorithm, implemented without variation and without fail, would fix any other problems I might have elsewhere.

Yeah, right. This may have worked for a while, but eventually the realities of dealing with other people changed in such a way as to make this a less than useful narrative in achieving my goals. Of course, when this happened, I didn't question the narrative, I questioned everybody else. When I failed with my meta at the same time others were having more success using different narratives, I didn't see the shortcomings of mine. My system was right; again, theirs was the wrong one. Mine was "more true" or "more pure", a belief I held sometimes as fervently as any religious fanatic. Simply knocking down the structures that have been built up over years and decades and even generations isn't an attractive option. So I kept up with it, sometimes being happier, sometimes not, occasionally making changes at the periphery and eventually finding myself in uneasy compromises where my narrative was hit and miss. It was more of a matter of luck than anything intentional, and as a result was temporary.

That too passed, and as things stopped working, I became frustrated because tweaking things didn't work. The algorithms didn't work. In fact, it was increasingly obvious that I was just trying to do the wrong things altogether. I was baking a cake when what I really needed to do was paint a wall, and no matter how well I made that cake, the wall wasn't getting painted and everybody was getting mad. Eventually, after several efforts at baking a better cake, I began to realize that it was fruitless. The cake wasn't faulty. My assumption that a cake was necessary was. In fact, taking a look around my life made me realize that although I had a lot of pretty good cakes here and there, I had a lot of unpainted walls and unfinished poetry and unwritten programs. I could continue to bake cakes and hope that under some circumstances they might do the trick, or I could try to figure out what I really needed to do, which would require taking a pretty hard look at how I got to thinking about cakes in the first place. It would be a difficult task, and it would be an unpleasant one. But it's the one I chose because the alternative was no longer tenable.

I found it hard, it's hard to find...

At first, I was pretty angry. On the surface, I was angry at people for not wanting cakes. I was mad that people would not want what I was offering them. But of course I knew this was folly, and that people are not under any obligation to value what I happen to value just because I value it. Sure, my narrative said that certain things were more valuable than others and hence any "good" person would also value these same things (be they character traits like honesty or arbitrary moral rules of any sort), but when I removed the tautologies of my narrative, it all fell apart like a house of cards collapsing in upon itself.  I couldn't be angry at people for not sharing my narrative, because being angry isn't going to change their minds or make them value my meta more. If I wanted to stop pushing against immovable objects and encounter a bit less resistance to my happiness and success, I would have to stop berating others for their inferior narratives and instead figure out what was working for them that could apply to my own reality.

When you look for new narratives, you have to be prepared to throw out your old beliefs and turn them about entirely, often times without understanding the mechanism behind it. A somewhat illustrative if irreverent example is the teetotaler who wants a more successful job being faced with the study that shows that men who drink after work earn 10 to 14 percent more than the abstainer. There isn't an obvious correlation here, which I think can make it even harder to change the narrative: it's like being brought up to jump up and down on one leg facing a certain direction, and then learning that people who turn 20 degrees to the north are more successful in their jobs. "What?" you say to yourself, and dismiss everything as ridiculousness.

Take honesty, for example. Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that absolute honesty was the unswervingly best policy, and that anybody who did not measure up to this standard was inferior. I prided myself in being honest even when, especially when, it made no sense and other people would choose something else. That particular point of view, however, did not lead to the success that I was hoping for. In fact, in many situations not telling the truth turned out to be the better option for everybody involved. Ditto for "faking it" and pretending character traits that I did not happen to feel at the time. Rampant dishonesty and fakery continued to be counterproductive to long-term success, which I was expecting, but I was somewhat surprised to find some of these other things. It turns out that often the best cake is inferior to a crappily-painted wall when a painted wall is what people really want.

What I really discovered though, overarching all of the other discoveries, was that this wasn't easy, nor was it supposed to be. Despite the changes I had made on the margins over the years to make my life slightly easier, the inherent easiness that I had expected of everything had not disappeared since I created it long ago. In fact, many of the other portions of my narrative were based upon finding the easiest or simplest rule and implementing it: being always truthful instead of trying to determine what another person wanted to hear, or my somewhat-distantly discarded alcoholic prohibition. In those cases, it was far easier to stick to absolutes than to put the time into determining whether something was beneficial or hazardous in that particular situation. Time and again, I had realized that in order to squeeze things into the cubbyhole that said I could do anything easily when "anything" was a lot smaller pond than it used to be, I was taking the easy way out. When it comes to a geometric proof, simplicity may equal elegance, but not always when it comes to a job or a relationship. I insisted on hewing to easy, however, and that doesn't work.

Also, I had to admit that a lot of it was based on fear. Fear kept me from finding out what people really wanted, because there was always the chance that I would fail. Some early but consistent failures at things that weren't easy heavily influenced my narrative to the degree that I envisioned shapeless, though ominous, consequences should I fail again. I paid lip service to "fear itself being the only thing to fear", but I didn't grok it. That would require making changes to my narrative. It was only after I had failed so miserably and so spectacularly, and lived to tell the tale, that I realized that there was very little I actually had to be afraid of. In fact, that might have been the trigger for all of this, the Phoenix rising from its own ashes. It would be poetic if so much had not been destroyed in the process.

We're not just making promises, that we know we'll never keep...

Of course, I am only at the beginning of reevaluating my narrative and trying to figure out what works best to bring happiness to myself and others. But understanding that it is possible for a narrative to be wrong is an important first step, because unless you can see the walls around you and realize that their mere existence is not proof of their rightness, you can't change anything about them. It's not an easy process, but perhaps changing that part of my narrative is the most important thing I will have to do. I simply hope I have the ability and the vision to do it correctly.

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